"Terms of Surrender" by Pete Fanning

 

I wash up and dry my hands, shaking my head at the guy in the mirror. Things have changed. The old mirror was oval with a dull spot on the left. And the thick wallpaper with the botanical theme is gone as well. The whole bathroom has been remodeled. It shouldn’t be surprising—it’s been over five years since I've been here. I’ve changed too.

What has and hasn’t changed should be the least of my worries. What I’m doing here at all is the question, and walking back into the dining room, the enormity of the situation hits me all over again. Allison. A chance encounter. Last night. A bedtime dare.

Unlike their bathroom, Allison’s parents have not been renovated. They still regard me with those matching glances that say, “You’re a phase—nothing more.” Old Larry is a bit thicker, grayer, with some serious wrinkles around the edges. His ears have grown and his gut is more pronounced, but his voice still drips with the same casual arrogance I remember so well.

Taking my place at the table, Allison gives me that big, blue-eyed smile I’ve never outgrown. I know I should mention the improvements to the bathroom, because it will give Glenda a chance to go on about the house. But I don’t. Our game has rules. I can’t give her an opening.

Larry takes the reins. “So, Paul, you look good. Allison tells me you’re doing poetry?”

I’m doing poetry. He says it in the way you would say “finger painting.” It prickles down my neck, but I only nod, play along. “That’s right,” I say.

Allison takes a hefty gulp of wine. She comes up for air, tries to navigate things. “Dad, Paul just had a reading at the Eason Center downtown,” she says, looking at me, building me up, urging me along like she used to do. “He’s going to be at Gillen College tomorrow night.”

I nod graciously. True statement, Larry, and your daughter here is the subject of nearly half of those poems. The fact that I ran into her at a bar—that we were both in town just after her engagement fizzled has got to be grating on your nerves, huh?

Larry thinks it’s great, just great. He takes a stab at his green beans. The last time I sat down at this antique dinner table I was making seven dollars an hour, having quit community college after one semester to work at the car wash. Allison was still a senior in high school, and her parents could never quite seem to hide their disapproval. Back then I took pride in the fact that Allison and I had had sex in every room under their roof. And now, having left my maturity at the door, I’m still awfully proud as I take a look around.  

But it’s different; I’m published now. I’ve fused all my hope and hurt to lines on a page, taken snippets of my childhood and underlined them with a not-so-secret profession of love that at least one critic has labeled “profound.”

It isn’t enough.  

Glenda elbows her way back into the conversation. I clench my teeth, having forgotten the way she makes a spectacle of holding up a hand, chewing her food and letting the suspense build as she swallows, wipes her face, sips her wine, then so delicately shares whatever insignificant nugget she has to offer.

“Oh, that’s wonderful, Paul.”

If she says that she’s proud of me, I will flip the table over on its side. Mic drop my way out of here. Long ago, Allison noticed how I flinched whenever she mentioned her parents. She pointed it out again last night, when I asked about her plans and she told me about tonight’s dinner with her parents. We were naked in bed, the streetlight casting an amber glow on her breasts. A balance of power and playfulness in her eyes, pinning me back. So when she tentatively invited me to join her, I took it as a dare.

Now her mother talks poetry. Who she’d read in college. Sip. Chew. Wipe. Am I being paid?, she wants to know.

“You know, I always pegged you for a creative type. More of a dreamer than, well…”

Allison’s throat bobs. She reaches for the salad. Her eyes run to me, pull me in. What was I thinking anyway, with Allison’s warmth in the crook of my neck? Her teeth on my ear. That some long overdue armistice was in order? Sure, I’ll come and see old Larry and Glenda.

I look away, release the grip on my fork, nod and shrug. The bubbles in my wineglass fire off like neurons in my brain.

Larry plods back in, talking about golf as though anyone is interested. I slump, weary and beaten, falling into back into my role of car washer. Last night’s triumph is gone, and whatever I’d expected—some sort of victory march into that old house—slips from my grasp.

Allison feels it too. Her eyes fall to her plate, like a steel door slamming shut, and I’m left stranded at the table amidst discussion of tee times and manners, contemplating the terms of surrender. Larry and Glenda’s comfortable smiles and composed gestures make it clear. This is a victory dinner—their victory dinner. They’ve allowed me to come see for myself. This is all I will ever have.

They know that love alone cannot win. That I will never discuss vacation spots with Glenda while rinsing dishes or slice the ball off the country club fairway while Larry chuckles to his buddies. I will never hold a title or job that meets the merits. And I will sure as hell never stand stiff and awkward with a man of the cloth while Larry walks arm in arm with his daughter down the aisle, nodding proudly to those in the pews. I can wash their cars. I can write poetry about their lovely daughter. I can dream.

After dinner, Allison and I step outside, alone, her father’s handshake and her mother’s hug stinging like fresh wounds from battle. I look past the fence to the pasture. The same mountains in the backdrop. The trees are bigger, but everything else seems smaller. There’s not much to say.

“Well, thanks for…this.”

Allison takes my hand and shakes her head. We laugh—at bad decisions and disastrous dinners, at our past. When I’d sneak in to her basement. Late night phone conversations. Picking her up at school. When I waxed her father’s Mercedes at the car wash in hopes to score some points.

I can’t wash or write my way to her. Allison and I have bars, basements dreams. We have streetlights and sex. We will never have a Sunday service, proper dinners, or equestrian activities.

I kiss her forehead. “I’ll call you.”

She nods. I realize that it could be two days or ten years before I see her again. I hope her children have her eyes.

I find the keys to my rental.

“Paul.”

I turn, wounds be damned, still clinging to some far-off hope. Allison nods at the tree house, just off the porch. It’s been painted. Changed.

“Remember that?”

Five years of seasons pass. Summer. I rub my hip, where a wasp broke up our party.

“Of course. Still looks sturdy.”

A gorgeous blue smile. “I’m so proud of you.”

I nod, realizing then it’s all I ever wanted to hear. I watch the woman I love walk back into her house to talk about vacations with her mother in the kitchen.


 
 

Pete Fanning lives in Virginia, where he's working on his first novel. He writes short fiction at www.lunchbreakfiction.wordpress.com. He can also be found on Twitter (@fatherknwslttle).