Aaron was sharing a room with some of his friends on the same floor I was staying on, but I was okay with sharing a room with one of the other moms. Tara’s son Robbie was one of Aaron’s best friends, so we saw a lot of each other. Her husband, Eggs, was active duty in the Marines. Somehow he had managed to not end up overseas during the war. That was one hell of a lottery they won there. Eggs was a good guy, though. I liked Tara. She was sassy and took no shit from anyone, whether it was her husband, her kids or anyone who might try to be disrespectful to her.
Once we had the kids in their rooms for the night, we went back to ours. She’d smuggled in a bottle of wine and I was happy to see it. After the day I had, I was more than happy to have a glass. Well, a little plastic cup’s worth, but it was still exactly what I needed. I knew she’d figured out there was a resemblance between Eric and Aaron. I was sure most of the moms had figured it out.
What’s done in the dark will be brought to the light…
“This is good chardonnay,” I said after taking a sip.
“It’s one of my favorites,” she agreed. “So are you going to tell me who that tall drink of water that was looking at you like an oasis in the desert is?” Tara didn’t beat around the bush.
“His name is Eric Northman. We met back in the summer of ‘68 when I went out to California to visit my aunt and my cousin. He was the first serious boyfriend I ever had. He was a lot of firsts for me, actually,” I said. “He uh… he’s also Aaron’s biological father.”
“You don’t say?” She wasn’t surprised. “Aaron doesn’t know, does he?”
“Not yet. I didn’t think I would ever see Eric again. I sent him a letter after I went home to tell him I was pregnant, but the letter came back unopened. I figured he wasn’t interested in me anymore. Turns out he’d been drafted and was already on his way to boot camp. So I married someone else to keep my daddy off my back, and I didn’t think Eric would ever be a part of my life. There was no reason to tell Aaron that Eric was his father.”
“Judging by the way he looked at you today, he didn’t lose interest. It has to be one hell of a shock for him, as it will be for Aaron. If you ask me, I think Aaron has already worked it out. He looked like he knew something.”
“I think he probably has to. The older he gets, the more he’s looking like Eric. When he was little it was easy for everyone to just assume he looked like me. In another week he’ll be taller than me,” I laughed. I had no doubt Aaron was going to be Eric’s height when he was all done growing. “I just… I didn’t think here was the right place to tell him. Eric’s going to come back to North Carolina with me. He’s not committed to living anywhere and he already said he wants to be a part of Aaron’s life, assuming Aaron will let him.”
“Sounds like you got a winner. Do you still love him?” She took a sip of her wine.
That was a tricky question to answer. I honestly hadn’t thought about him much. Yes, he still had that super special place in my heart. I’d had moments of anger toward him but they were fleeting and it wasn’t even anything I felt like holding over his head. If I really wanted to track him down and tell him about Aaron, I probably could have. Instead of really pursuing it, I took the easy way out and married someone else.
Everything happened for a reason. I didn’t hold any grudges and it didn’t seem like he did either. Honestly, I don’t know how he would have handled rehabbing his injury and trying to be a husband and father. Not knowing about Aaron might have saved his life. I’d never know if I made the right decision or if it would have made everything different if I had made more of an effort to tell him about the baby.
“I care for him a great deal. I can’t say if I love him. I did love him. He’s not the same person he was then, and for good reason. I think we could give things another chance and see what happens. I don’t have any ill will toward him,” I told her.
“Getting to know each other again is a good place to start.”
“I think so. The summer of ‘68 was a long time ago. I’m not the same person I was back then.” No longer was I under my daddy’s thumb. I’d stopped letting others make decisions for me a long time ago.
“And as you’ve said, he’s not the same either. I hope things work out for you. It would be good for Aaron to have a dad around to teach him all the man things he’s going to need to learn.”
“It would. I like to think I’ve done a decent job of filling the dad shoes, but I know Eric could do it even better. Being a dad might help him get healthier mentally. He’s got a little shell shock on him.”
“He has that look about him. Like there’s a light back there somewhere waiting to shine. Maybe having something, or someone, to focus on can help.”
“I hope so. He’s a good man. I can tell that hasn’t changed.” I took another drink of my wine.
“I hope it all works out for you guys. I think you both deserve it.”
“Thanks. I mostly hope Aaron doesn’t hate me for life.” He’d have a right to.
“I think he’ll get over it sooner than you think. Especially if Eric ends up being a great dad. He’s old enough to understand what happened.”
“I hope that’s the case. I don’t know how I would feel if I was in Aaron’s place. It would probably be a lot harder if JB wouldn’t have died.”
“He wasn’t attached,” she nodded.
“Exactly. There’s a chance he could get attached to Eric. I’m going to leave that up to him, though.” My son was just stubborn enough for me to know that I couldn’t make him do anything. It was up to him to decide whether or not he wanted to get emotionally attached to Eric or not. I hoped he did. Aaron deserved to finally have a dad that was there in the flesh and Eric deserved to be a part of his son’s life. I hoped it wasn’t all messed up beyond repair.
There was no good time or place to tell Aaron that Eric was his dad. I tried to think of the ideal situation, but I knew if I over-staged it, that was no good either. So the next day after breakfast when we left the hotel, we headed across the Potomac River to the Arlington National Cemetery to go visit Jason. His class was going to witness the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. I had never witnessed the ceremony myself. When we got there, Eric was already waiting for us and it didn’t go unnoticed by Aaron.
“Why is Eric here?” he asked as he looked over at me.
“I asked him to come. He’s a veteran. I thought he might appreciate it.” And he’s your dad, but I’m not going to tell you that quite yet.
“He could have come here on his own.” Aaron was giving me a look that told me knew there was more to it.
“He could have, but I like having someone to talk to when you’re off doing your own thing with your friends.”
“There are plenty of people to talk to. Why is he so special?”
“Because I haven’t seen him in a long time. I’d like to catch up. Is there something wrong with that?”
“No, I guess not.”
“Good. Look, I know you’re protective of me and I appreciate that you might want to make sure he’s not a bad guy. I’m not going to tell you that you have to like him, but I am going to ask you to give him a chance,” I said as Eric approached us.
“I can do that. Was he your boyfriend?”
I waited until Eric was standing there to answer the question.
“Yes, Eric was my boyfriend,” I confirmed. “In fact, he was the only boyfriend I had before I married JB.”
“You mean my dad…” He was catching on.
I looked at Eric. I couldn’t keep up the facade anymore and I knew if I lied to Aaron in that moment it was going to cause a big old problem I didn’t need.
“Actually…” I trailed off. My chest tightened up and my throat dried up. “Actually, Eric is your dad.”
He looked back and forth between Eric and me. Aaron’s silence dragged on for ages while Eric looked at him, waiting for his reaction.
“You should know that I did what I thought was the right thing when I told you that JB was your dad,” I said to Aaron, drawing his attention my way. I could tell he was stuck somewhere between angry and confused over what I had just told him. It was what I expected.
“But it wasn’t right,” he said quietly. “I… I…” He looked over at Eric. “So you’re… and you didn’t die in Vietnam… did you know about me?”
“I did not,” Eric confirmed. “But it wasn’t for lack of your mom trying to find me to tell me,” he added, trying to keep me out from under the bus.
“I was young, Aaron, and I was afraid of your grandpa. I knew if I didn’t get married he was going to make me give you up and I didn’t want to do that. So I got married. JB knew you weren’t his son, but he didn’t care. He was excited to be a dad. I couldn’t take that away from him and when I couldn’t find Eric, I thought there was no chance I was ever going to see him again. So I told you that JB was your dad because I thought it was better to have a dad that died in the war than it was to have a dad that just didn’t care. I didn’t know that Eric was in the war too.”
“Wow,” he breathed. “You could have told me the truth even if you lied to Grandpa.” I could see his eyes welling with angry tears.
“I’m sorry I lied to you, Aaron. I had my reasons for doing it but that doesn’t make it right. I did what I thought was the right thing then.” I stood by it. He would get over his anger.
“It wasn’t,” he sniffled. He wasn’t even looking at Eric who stayed silent.
I didn’t agree with him, but I wasn’t going to argue. That would only make it worse. On top of that, he was allowed to feel like he had been betrayed by me. In some way he had. I was sure that in time he would see it all differently, but it was going to take some time for him to process things. To keep him from getting made fun of for crying in front of his friends, I grabbed a tissue out of my purse and handed it to him discreetly. Aaron turned the other way so his back was to his classmates so he could clean up his face a little bit.
My eyes swung over to Eric. He looked a little troubled, but then I was sure I did too.
“When you’re ready, we can talk about this some more,” I said to Aaron,
Aaron nodded before he handed me the tissue back.
“I’m going to go see my friends.”
“Okay. We’ll find you after the ceremony is over.”
Aaron nodded again before he walked away.
“That went better than expected,” Eric said quietly as he reached out to hug me.
“Yeah, it did. I think if I would have waited any longer it would have been a problem.” It was a lot to take in. Suddenly, this poor kid who had come to terms with not having a dad, had one standing right in front of him. I never told him that JB and I had some great, fairy tale love story or that my life crumbled without him. If he had lived I would have done everything I could to make things work with him. I never celebrated his death or felt relieved by it, but I also never grieved for him the way most wives would when they lost a husband. Leaving Eric at the end of that summer was harder than burying my husband.
“He’s going to forgive you, you know. Probably sooner than later. I also think he knew the truth before you told him.”
“I think he did too. I’m sure he figured it out last night,” I sighed. I let go of Eric and took a step back. “I appreciate you being here for this.”
“I wouldn’t be anywhere else,” he assured me.
“Do you want to go see the Eternal Flame?” I asked him. I remembered where I was when Kennedy was shot. My parents were positively gobsmacked by it.
“Yeah,” he smiled.
I was okay with letting him take my hand. Out of the corner of my eye I saw my – our – son standing with a group of his friends. I wanted to see the Kennedy memorial, but there wasn’t enough time to get over there and back to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier to see the changing of the guard, so instead we found a place to stand since the ceremony was about to start. It had been made very clear to the kids that even though we were outdoors, it was still a cemetery and so they needed to be quiet and respectful of that. So far, I hadn’t noticed any of them getting out of line.
Eric and I held hands while the ceremony took place. I had to guess witnessing it might have been a little more emotional for him than it was for me. Yes, I had lost my husband and my brother in the war, but I was sure he had lost more than that. He hadn’t made all the same sacrifices that they had, but I was sure he would say that he lost part of himself by fighting that war. He had put himself aside to help keep his brothers alive.
That alone made him a great man, in my book.
I was surprised that the ceremony didn’t take very long at all. I couldn’t really hear what the soldier said when he made some kind of announcement at the beginning of the ceremony, but I wasn’t standing in the right spot for it. It was impressive how measured their steps were and that they were able to move in perfect sync like they did. There was a meticulous weapons inspection before the new soldier was permitted to take up his post. Eric laced his fingers with mine.
Like me, I was sure he never thought he would be standing there, doing what we were doing with our son standing less than twenty feet away. I wasn’t sure what Aaron was paying closer attention to, us or the ceremony. My money was on us to see if we really did still care about each other. I knew how we related to each other would factor into how Aaron handled things. I wasn’t putting on a show for him, but I did want him to know that I was accepting of Eric being back in my life. I hoped that Aaron would come to feel the same way in time.
“Eric wants to move to North Carolina so he can get to know you,” I told Aaron while we were at dinner together later that night. I wasn’t sure if he was ready to talk about it, but I figured I had a better shot at talking to him alone since he wasn’t exactly comfortable with Eric yet.
“He can do what he wants,” Aaron shrugged. “Is he going to moving in with us?”
“No, at least I don’t think so. I did tell him he could stay with us while he looks for a place, but he’ll be staying in the spare room. Would it bother you if I started dating him?”
“I don’t know. I guess it’s better than dating someone you don’t know. I can tell you guys really like each other.”
“If it was up to me, I would have stayed in California with him, for what it’s worth,” I told Aaron. “I don’t regret the way things happened. I’m sorry you haven’t had a dad all this time. Maybe I should have tried harder to find him, but who knows if that would have made things better or worse. All I know is that it’s not too late. For either of us.”
“I think I need to get to know him better. It’s strange learning I have a dad that’s actually alive and here. I don’t know him, so I can’t say for sure how I feel about him or how I feel about you guys dating. You’re saying a lot of nice things about him, but look what happened to James.”
“You have a point there,” I conceded. “It’s true that Eric might have some problems because of the things he saw over there in Vietnam. I don’t know how bad it is for him. I know that he was shot in the leg and it almost killed him. I know that he gets paranoid sometimes and feels like he’s being watched when he’s in a group of people. I don’t know if he feels that way when he’s alone. I’ll be getting to know him again too. He’s not the same Eric he was when we met almost thirteen years ago. Anything you want to know, I’ll be happy to tell you.” Well, within reason, of course. There were some things my son didn’t need to know. I liked being open with him, but there were parts of my life that didn’t need to be up for discussion.
“I guess I should talk to him,” he sighed. He hadn’t said much to Eric at all. “I don’t think I’m mad at him if he really didn’t know about me. I am angry at you,” he admitted. “I know you had your reasons, but I really wish I wasn’t blindsided when he just showed up.”
“Well honey, it’s not like I knew he was going to be here. If I thought there was a snowball’s chance in hell that he would ever turn up I would have sat you down and told you the truth.” I picked up my fork to take another bite of the Mongolian beef on my plate. “I still have the letter I sent Eric to tell him about you. It’s still unopened. You can see it if you want to.”
“I think I would like to.”
“I know better than to tell you to like him. You’re capable of making up your own mind on that. Like I said before, I just hope you’ll give him a chance before you decide you don’t.” I scooped up a bite of rice.
“I will,” he promised.
“Is there anything you want to ask me?” I took a drink of my water.
“I don’t know. What was he like? I mean, why did you like him so much?”
“He got me thinking about myself for a change. I was pretty caught up in the things I was taught, and instead of thinking for myself, I was letting your grandpa dictate what my life looked like. Eric liked to experience things with me and try to see things through my eyes, I suppose. We did some traveling within California while I was there, and those were some of the best days in my whole life. Plus, I was young and for the first time in my life, someone made me feel special. That’s a pretty big deal for a girl.”
“How long did you guys date?”
“Just under seven weeks.” It seemed like a lot more time than that, but that was all it was.
“Did you love him?”
“Yeah, I did. I tried not to because I knew I had to leave him, but the heart doesn’t understand reason or logic. You’ll learn that for yourself one day.”
Aaron nodded again. “I hope he’s a great as you make him seem.”
“The Eric I remember is that great. Like I said, I’ll be getting to know who he is now right along with you.” I hoped that at his core Eric hadn’t changed, but only time would tell.
Just the fact that Aaron was willing to give him a chance was a good sign. Not that I thought he would, but I really hoped Eric didn’t blow it.