The boy stands up straight like always. His father says doing so exudes confidence. It’s the fifth day of sixth grade, and that’s when confidence is needed most, especially with Aidan lurking. Despite a slouch, Aidan grazed over Tommy by inches. Nobody would have blamed Tommy if he avoided him altogether. After all, Baker Middle School stands twice the size as Tommy’s last school, but his father’s voice rings deep inside: if people can’t be nice it’s their own damn fault.
“What’s up, Aidan?” Tommy says with conviction.
“What’s up, Aidan?” mimics Aidan.
A sea of laughter erupts from a half dozen lanky pre-teens awaiting Aidan’s every move.
The best part of the first week at Baker Middle School happens at 3 p.m. on the fifth day of sixth grade. It’s when the school bus dropped Tommy off at the three-bedroom house where Tommy’s grandmother has chocolate chip cookies and lemonade situated on the wooden-kitchen table. He scarfs down three cookies before his grandmother could ask him about his day. Grandma knew Tommy lied again after he says great, but she didn’t say anything to question him.
Tommy’s mother works late on Fridays. It’s when she pulled the double at the hospital. She works in the psych unit, because she’s the type of person that wanted to make a difference to people seldom thought of. It’s something she requested in nursing school some years ago, before Tommy was born. Melissa brought home ice cream for Tommy every Friday night. His favorite being chocolate, but she’d bring him a different flavor each week, telling him it’s important to try new things. It’s why she tried to sign him up for soccer to meet new people. Tommy didn’t budge. Nothing made him more miserable than the idea of playing soccer.
It’s not that Tommy didn’t like soccer; quite the opposite. He scored five goals in manner of minutes against the Blue team last year. That was in Ohio with his father cheering from the sidelines. Much has changed since then… everything, for that matter.
It was Sunday morning, which meant doughnuts from Randi’s. The powdered ones, filled with dove-white cream, entered Tommy’s mouth faster than it took for his father to place down the see-through container on the counter. Melissa warned him to slow down, but Leo told her it’s OK since he’s a growing boy. Melissa couldn’t help but smile, even though Tommy wore most of the powder on his freckled face. Sunday in the summer meant a trip to the lake for the Buckley’s. It was the last Sunday before soccer began for Tommy. The family stumbled upon the “secret” lake before Tommy turned two. It rapidly became a special place. It’s where Leo first taught Tommy how to properly catch a trout, it’s where Tommy lost his first tooth while biting his dad’s famous peanut butter and banana jam sandwich and it’s where the three laughed the hardest over the goofiest of things, stuff Leo said, Tommy did and how Melissa reacted to it all. Pure bliss. It’s a 30-minute drive down a highway that seemingly stretched for days. Leo played his favorite songs, which always included Tom Petty, who he called “the greatest songwriter to ever grace Earth.” Petty made optimal music for driving in a car, specifically a car featuring Leo and Melissa. No matter the distance, Leo could be counted on to tell that fateful story about how he met the love of his life. Tommy knew it by heart, reciting it back to his parents that Sunday morning the summer before fifth grade.
“Not again, Dad! Let me guess you saw Mom out of the corner of your eye by the jukebox, and she looked more beautiful than a thousand sunsets. Almost immediately the song Wildflowers could be heard in the crowded bar…”
Leo glanced at Melissa: her shiny hair, the half smile she mustered whenever Leo stared at her for even a fraction of a second before his mind drifted back to that Saturday night in 1997.
For some reason, Leo wasn’t nervous approaching Melissa, despite her striking figure and his normally nervous self. Maybe it had something to do with the shots of cheap whiskey, or maybe it had to do with his favorite song playing for everyone to hear. Leo felt the song pull him towards her almost like a magnetic force. He was meant to be at that very bar that very night to meet that very girl.
The same could be said for Melissa. Her roommates begged her to leave the library where she stationed herself for hours on end. “Loosen up,” her best friend told her as Melissa prepared for a biology test she most definitely would ace.
It’s why she threw down tequila shot after shot. She was stressed out and she needed a pick me up. She wasn’t expecting the pick me up to be Leo.
“This is our song,” Leo said before introducing himself. From time to time he questions why Melissa responded to such a douche opening line. Melissa, despite laughing in his bearded face, found it endearing. Enough so that Melissa took Leo immediately by the hand, whirling him around.
“This isn’t how it’s supposed to go,” Leo said. But Melissa didn’t hear him. She just kept on whirling the six-foot-five man as Wildflowers continued.
As the song ended, Leo rushed Melissa outside of the tavern, into the chilly starlit night. On the walk to a 24-hour diner, Melissa told Leo about her fear of roller coasters, her favorite movie “The Princess Bride” and how she wanted to live in a house with a backyard big enough for a gazebo. Leo told Melissa about his fascination with Petty, how his favorite day was Tuesday and why milkshakes were the best thing to intake while drunk. The conversation didn’t seem to end.
The first time they met could be construed as a date, but Melissa always called it the “unofficial” date. She wanted something a bit more formal and less tequila based. Both were seniors. Both were looking for each other; they just didn’t know it.
A tear strummed down Leo’s face. Tommy asked what was wrong, but Melissa knew. There wasn’t much talking the rest of the way. Or on the way back. Tommy wept as Melissa griped him tight in the backseat. Leo kept driving.
Soccer began shortly after. Tommy scored goals, flashing a smile to his dad on the sidelines. Leo brought home doughnuts. Melissa warned Tommy to slow down. Tommy scored goals, looking over to an empty spot of grass. Leo’s mom brought doughnuts to the hospital. Melissa didn’t say much at all. Tommy stopped going to soccer. Leo’s mom didn’t bring doughnuts anywhere. It might as well have happened all at once. Leo and Tommy shared a moment days before the end. His father handed him an envelope, telling him to open it whenever he felt alone.
Melissa couldn’t stay there. Looking outside at the gazebo as the snow melted away. Everything reminded her of Leo, especially Tommy. He didn’t take the news well. How could he? Melissa locked herself in their bedroom with Wildflowers on repeat. Anytime Petty sang, “You belong somewhere you feel free” Melissa sulked.
Tommy spoke to himself as he lay in bed, praying he’d fall asleep. Losing a parent felt like a repeated punch in the gut. He tried to calm himself down. He read online somewhere about how the military perfected falling asleep in the most grueling circumstances and conditions in under two minutes. Somehow, Tommy fell asleep each night.
Melissa’s mind raced back to the beginning years of their relationship: before marriage and before Tommy. Her first job at the psych hospital; Leo worked in advertising. Melissa told stories about how patient Hugh tried to stab her; Leo told stories that came to life. He made her laugh at the silliest of things. Recalling stories in her mind made her think of Tommy. Everything went back to Tommy. Melissa knew she had to be there for him. She had to be strong in the direst of situations.
They had to leave. Melissa grew up in Michigan. Leo wasn’t from Ohio. Ohio is just where they graduated from college, where they began their family. The day Leo left might as well have been the day the Buckley’s moved from Ohio. Tommy was numb to it all. He showed little emotion as he said good-bye to his friends. Melissa promised his friends could visit as often as they’d like. Of course, she second-guessed herself. She’d ask her mom if this was the right thing to do.
“Am I bad parent?” Melissa asked Angela days before the move.
Angela assured Melissa she was dealt an awful hand. Nobody has the answers in this kind of situation. You have to do what’s best for you and Tommy. You have each other.
Going back to her childhood home with her mother and son was best. It’s what Leo told her to do: begin a new life, sweetie, he’d say during their late night talks. Damn it, she missed him. How his eyes zeroed in on hers even at the most casual of conversations, the stern look he gave when she couldn’t pronounce the word “conscience” and the time she found him teaching the neighbor how to catch lightning bugs.
Tommy would make new friends as he began middle school, he told her. There would be nothing to worry about except actually moving on. And that’s easier said than done.
Melissa kept asking Leo about soccer. She bought him new cleats. She called Baker Middle School’s soccer coach to tell her about Tommy and the situation. He didn’t want anything to do with it, though. No matter how many times she asked, or how many different ways, he always said no.
Tommy never said much of anything. His mother returns shortly before 10:30 p.m. with a cup of chocolate chip cookie dough, an acceptable flavor for Tommy to devour. Angela had been asleep. Melissa called for Tommy as she walked into the front door. Usually, he waited in the kitchen, watching Nickelodeon re-runs on his iPad. It took her moments to find him, almost hiding in the basement. He had built a fort like he and his father used to do.
“How was school,” Melissa asks sincerely.
Tommy gives her the look that he didn’t want to be bothered, but Melissa persists, asking about his friends, his earth science class and the color of his teacher’s dress. She didn’t care what he says in response; Melissa just wants to hear her son talk, wants to make sure he was all right.
“Why did he have to leave?”
Taken aback, Melissa looks at her son, who begins to cry. The emotion takes over; he finally cracks after months of silence. The two embrace, holding onto each other like their life dependent on it.
After what certainly felt an eternity, Melissa tells her son to open the letter.
Tommy reads the letter quietly to himself.
Everybody who has a child says the best day of their life happens in a hospital room. It’s the day their precious child enters this breathtaking, gorgeous and sometimes nerve-racking world. That wasn’t the best day of my life. Sure, I couldn’t stop smiling. Your mother and I cried. It’s an overwhelming experience; seeing a human being you helped create enter the world. It did feel miraculous. But that’s not the best day of my life. It’s not even close.
I watched you grow. I helped you stand up and walk. I cleaned you up after the messes, the spills and the attempted bathroom adventures. You learned words. You tied your shoes. You made friends. You became your own self. The 500-piece puzzle we started, well, you finished it all by yourself. You built the Lego Batmobile in an afternoon, too.
The day you scored your first goal, at age four, you looked over to me and said: “I did it! I scored!’ You sounded proud, you sounded accomplished. You did something special. That was the best day of my life. And all of the other days I spent with you: the fishing trip, seeing Ratatouille in theaters, making tomato soup from scratch using mom’s recipe.
It happened so quickly. Everything happens so quickly. Just when you think things will be smooth, poof, it’s gone. The world moves on. Everything is supposed to be normal. But how could anything ever be normal again?
There’s so much I won’t see you do like graduate middle school and high school. I won’t see you score goals. I won’t see you go on dates. I won’t see you make mistakes. But believe me, you’ll feel me in everything you do. No matter what happens. Believe in that.
Your mom might meet someone else, and that’s OK. It’s how it should be. Just remember I love you, and I love her. I love the both of you more than humanly possible. Chin up, always. Smile often. See the beauty in everything you do. Don’t be afraid to fail. Don’t be afraid to be afraid, because life is scary, and wonderful and a mystery and things will work out for you just right. Even if it doesn’t feel like that now, some day soon it will. Promise.
He folds it, hamburger style, into his pocket. He tells Melissa he’d keep the letter safe. They eat ice cream. They swap stories they hadn’t repeated in months. Tommy smiles. Melissa does, too.