The first chapter of my debut novel, Otherwise Perfect. Thanks for reading!
I told myself that after what happened, I would never go home again. I didn’t have a home anymore, according to my father. Yet here I am, driving down the familiar stretch of highway leading to my hometown of Ellington, Connecticut. After much persuasion from my mother, I am going home for Christmas.
It was tempting to stay in Hartford, knowing that my roommate would be going to spend the holidays with his family and that I’d have the apartment to myself. But my Mom convinced me that I needed to come home because I completed the family and it just wouldn’t be Christmas without me. Somehow, she made me believe that everything would be all right this time, because she’d talked to my father again and he’d agreed to be civil with me.
The closer I get to Ellington, the more desire I have to turn the car around. I look out the window at the bleak scenery, everything covered in day old snowfall. There’s no other sign of life on the road, just a mile marker letting me know I’m getting closer and closer to home.
As I pull off the highway and onto the secluded suburban street I grew up on, I hold my breath. There are twinkling Christmas lights on every house, lighting up the street in the falling dark. The neighborhood kids are scrambling back into their respective houses after a day of playing outside in the snow, red faced and happy. I imagine they’ll probably shrug off their heavy coats and sit in front of their fireplaces with hot chocolate while their parents read them all Christmas stories.
Lucky little bastards.
When I pull into the driveway, my parent’s house looms in front of me and somehow I don’t remember it looking so foreboding when I was growing up. I sigh and cut the engine, flicking my cigarette out the window. But I don’t let go of the steering wheel. I think about starting the car again and peeling out of here. Neither of my parents would ever know, but the porch light flickers on a few seconds later and my Mom comes into view, distracting me. She walks down the front porch steps to meet me and I reluctantly take the keys out of the ignition and open the door, where she greets me with a hug.
“I was starting to worry about you,” she says.
“I’m sorry,” I mumble, instead of telling her that I waited until the last possible second to leave my apartment so I wouldn’t have to spend as much time with my father.
“Do you need help with your things?” Mom asks. “I can get Patrick.”
“No,” I say too quickly. I’m not ready to face my father yet.
“Okay,” Mom says with a smile.
I grab my small suitcase and follow her into the house, inhaling the scent of pine from the huge Christmas tree in the corner. It lights up the entire living room, a pile of presents neatly stacked beneath it. I hear soft holiday music coming from the stereo on the other side of the room and it’s obvious that my Mom has put a lot of effort into making the house feel as festive as possible, but I still have no Christmas spirit. I just want this to be over.
“How are you?” Mom asks me once we’re inside, her brows cinched in concern.
Do I really look that unhappy?
“Fine,” I say, shrugging off my wet coat and hanging it by the door.
“You look thin,” Mom says. “Are you eating?”
“Yes, Mom, I’m eating.”
“Are you taking your medications?”
“Yes,” I say, becoming annoyed with her. She looks me up and down for a few seconds before shrugging.
“I worry about you, that’s all,” she says. “Why don’t you go put your things away? Dinner’s almost ready.”
I agree with a nod and trudge up the stairs, trying to be quiet about it. I know my father is up here somewhere and I really don’t want to run into him without my Mom there to be a buffer. I’m sure he’s probably trying to avoid me, too.
When I walk into my old room, I’m surprised that it looks the same as it did a year ago. I assumed my dad would’ve turned it into a gym or something by now, but it’s still exactly the way I left it.
I lie down on the freshly made bed and close my eyes for a little while, trying to think of what I could possibly say to my father after not speaking to him for so long. It’s not like we can just forget about what happened and pretend to love each other. I don’t know why my Mom thinks we’ll be able to forgive and forget so easily.
There’s a knock at my bedroom door that jolts me out of my dozing and makes me sit up too fast and blood rushes to my head. The door opens slightly and Mom pokes her head in.
“Dinner’s ready,” she says with a warm smile. I try to return it, but I don’t feel like smiling. I make myself get up and follow her back downstairs into the kitchen.
And there he is.
My father looks up when I enter the room, but his eyes fall back on the newspaper he was reading almost immediately.
“Jesse,” he murmurs, sipping a glass of scotch. It wouldn’t feel like home without my father having a drink in his hand. I wonder how many glasses he’s filled so far tonight.
I don’t respond to him, because my throat feels like sandpaper. I sit at the opposite end of the table, as far away from him as I can get.
“What’s for dinner?” I ask Mom, ignoring Patrick as he turns another page of the paper.
“Pork chops,” Mom says cheerfully, setting a plate in front of Patrick first, then bringing one to me.
Because he comes first, after all.
I start to pick up my fork but Mom clears her throat and gives me a look, her eyes flashing in disappointment. Patrick folds up his newspaper and finally looks at me.
“Jesse, do you want to say grace?” he asks, and I don’t miss the condescension in his voice. I only stare at him in silence.
“I will,” Mom says, coming to my rescue. She reaches across the table to take my hand and squeezes it reassuringly.
I listen as she repeats the same prayer I’ve heard at every family meal since I was born and I close my eyes and pretend to pray with her, if only to avoid an argument with them.
“Amen,” I mumble when she’s finished, picking up my fork and realizing that I have no appetite whatsoever. I force it down anyway to make my Mom happy. The sound of knives and forks scraping plates is the only sound for a few minutes.
“How was the drive here?” Mom asks me, her eyes bright and smiling.
“It was fine. Just a little long,” I say, stuffing another bite of pork chop in my mouth. I want to eat as fast as possible, to get away from this table and be alone.
“I hope the weather wasn’t too bad,” Mom continues, glancing from one end of the small table to the other. But Patrick is still concentrating on his food and completely ignoring both of us. I hear my Mom sigh under her breath.
“Are you looking forward to going back to school?” she asks. “This will be your last semester, right?”
“Yeah. I’ll graduate in May.”
“That is so great, honey. Isn’t that great, Patrick?”
Mom stares at Patrick so intently that I almost expect him to spontaneously combust. Under the weight of her stare, he finally succumbs and acknowledges my existence.
“Well, he hasn’t graduated yet,” he says, and Mom’s smile deflates.
“You don’t think I will?” I ask, abandoning a bite of mashed potatoes. Patrick shrugs.
“You’ve already had to repeat so many classes,” he says. “I mean, there’s no guarantee that you’ll pass them this time, either.”
“I’m caught up,” I remind him. “I worked my ass off to catch up.”
“Yes, but you almost threw your education away,” Patrick argues. “Do you have any idea how much money would have been wasted?”
“But it wasn’t,” I say through clenched teeth.
“We’ll see,” Patrick says, wiping his mouth and turning his attention back to his plate. I try to calm myself down, because I really don’t want to get into another argument with him. I’m tired of the same argument.
“I had reasons for missing those classes,” I say.
“Oh, right,” he says with a scoff. “Your depression. How could I forget?”
“Patrick,” my Mom warns.
“No, let him say what he wants to say,” I tell her, but my eyes never leave my father. “Let him blame it all on me again, if it makes him feel better.”
Patrick raises his eyes to meet mine and starts to say something else, but then he holds up his hands instead, as if in surrender. He abandons his meal, leaning back in his chair.
“You know what? I’m not going to do this with you again, Jesse. We all know by now that your little outburst was nothing more than a cry for attention.”
I can’t help but laugh out loud at his description of my suicide attempt. Patrick shakes his head at me and narrows his eyes.
“Do you think this is funny?”
“Yeah, I do. I really do. After all this time, you still refuse to admit that you are the reason I did what I did.”
“You were upset with me for telling the truth? I thought you didn’t want it to be a secret anymore, Jesse. You should be thanking me.”
“Thank you? You told me you wanted me dead!”
“That isn’t what I said and you know it. I admit that I was drunk and I didn’t mean to say those things.”
“You still said them.”
“It isn’t my fault that you overreacted,” Patrick says. I can’t believe that he’s actually still defending himself after all this time.
“You still don’t get it, do you?” I ask, unwelcome tears springing to my eyes. I will them to stay there, because I refuse to cry in front of him. Because it’s what he wants me to do. “You didn’t understand what I was going through. You didn’t even try to understand.”
“There’s nothing to understand, Jesse. I don’t know why you expect me to support your decision. You’ve chosen to live your life against God and I do not approve. I never will.”
“You’ve made that perfectly clear, dad,” I say. “But just the fact that you think this is my decision proves how fucking ignorant you really are.”
“Watch your mouth,” Patrick says sharply.
“Why bother? I’m already going to hell, right? I’m going to burn for all eternity with the rest of the fags. So why does it fucking matter?”
I stand up and my chair scrapes loudly against the floor. Mom reaches out to touch my arm but I shrug her away. I leave the room and run up the stairs to retrieve my suitcase, grateful that I never even bothered to unpack anything.
On my way back down the stairs, I can hear my parents arguing in the kitchen but I don’t pay attention to the words. The cold wind hits me as I open the door and I feel satisfied as it slams behind me. It can stay closed for the rest of my life. I don’t care anymore.
When I turn on my headlights, they illuminate my mother as she races down the front steps right as I’m throwing the car into reverse. The next thing I know, she’s at the window, tapping on the frosted glass.
“I’m not going back in there,” I say as soon as I roll the window down.
“Jesse, I’m sorry,” Mom says, wrapping her arms around herself. “You know he doesn’t mean it.”
“Yes, he does.”
Mom sighs and gives me a sad smile.
“I promise he still loves you, Jesse. You’re his only son. He’s having a hard time dealing with this, that’s all. He wasn’t expecting it.”
“What about you?”
“What about me?”
“Do you think this is wrong? Do you think I’m going to hell, too?”
As I look into her eyes, I feel the tears fall from mine and I’m actually afraid of her answer.
“It’s not for me to judge, Jesse.”
“Just answer the question.”
Mom is quiet for a minute, then she hesitates and I wish I had never asked.
“I really don’t know,” she says. “I hope not. I still pray for you, you know.”
“Pray for what? For God to turn me straight?”
“I pray for your safety,” Mom says. “I pray that your medications will work so you’ll be okay. I just want you to be okay.”
“Well, I’m not.”
“I can see that,” Mom says, brushing the tears from my cheek. “So why don’t you come back inside and get some sleep? Everything will be better tomorrow, you’ll see.”
I glance at the house and it’s so unappealing to me that it may as well be on fire.
“I’m not going back,” I say, shaking my head. “I’m never coming back again.”
I don’t give her a chance to say anything else before I back out of the driveway, watching the house I grew up in disappear in my rear view mirror as I drive away from it for the last time.