Staring out the window of the coffee shop, the woman wasn’t at all what he expected. Chase pushed down his anger at Hank as he watched him approach his long-estranged mother. The awkwardness was immediately apparent in how they interacted, with an almost hug that ended in a clumsy attempt at a handshake. Chase cringed at the display. He’d never met Lilah, but had this mental picture of her from the little information Hank had disclosed, and now he could see how wrong it had been.
Even though Hank had never used such words to describe her, Chase had expected someone brassy, maybe dressed a little too provocatively, and wearing too much make-up. That was not the woman standing on the other side of the glass.
First of all, she was stunning, but in a delightfully understated way. She wore no cosmetics he could see, and clearly didn’t need to. Her tied-back ash blonde hair shone, and the astonishing blue of her eyes matched her son’s exactly. She wore a pretty, white dress covered in tiny blue flowers, and a pale yellow sweater was draped over her shoulders. The willowy woman exuded class, and while she exuded nervousness as well, in her movements, her smile was quick and easy. It too was a carbon copy of Hank’s, and he was fascinated by it as it came and went a couple of times.
He liked her immediately, at least the looks of her, but maybe that was due to the resemblance to her son. He smiled and waved when Hank pointed him out to her through the glass. She returned both gestures.
Seconds later they were inside the coffee shop and walking towards the booth. He stood as Hank made the introductions.
“Lilah, this is… Chase.”
“Nice to meet you, Chase.”
“Nice to meet you too. I’ve heard a lot about you.”
“You have?” Chase’s words had startled her enough that her eyes widened, but she recovered quickly. “I know so little about my son’s life. Are you and Hank good friends?”
“We were… we used to be. We were a couple, ma’am, for about three years.”
“Longer than that,” Hank muttered quickly, his posture way too rigid.
Chase, surprised, looked at him and nodded. “Yes, three and a half years to be exact.”
“My, that’s a long time to be together. What happ—”
“Ah, sit down, Lilah,” Hank said abruptly, interrupting his mother.
“Oh, yes… of course.” She slid into the booth, and Chase, wincing at Hank’s rudeness, could feel her disappointment, probably at being called by her given name again. What mother wouldn’t be?
Hank stepped over to his side and practically shoved him into the corner of the booth with his body. Chase took in his clenched fists and released a quiet sigh. This was not going to be easy.
“Aren’t you going to get your mom something to drink?” Chase asked nicely, wanting to dispel some of the tension.
“Oh, right, sorry. What would you like?”
“Tea, Earl Grey, hot,” she answered with a mischievous grin.
Chase chuckled. “A Star Trek fan, I see.”
“Actually, more of a Jean-Luc Picard fan.” Her tinkling laugh was absolutely charming, but Hank’s face looked carved from stone as he stood up and left to get her tea.
She shook her head sadly as she watched her son walk away. “I hope I can make him understand why I had to leave… if he’ll finally let me. Sorry, I guess I shouldn’t be speaking without him present.”
“Of course you should. I know from all the times you’ve reached out to him that this is very important to you—and at least now you have your chance to try,” he said, hoping he was coming across as encouraging. “This is a big step for Hank, but you might have to push him a bit.”
Lilah gave a slight nod and a look of chagrin. “I’ve tried so many times, but he’s never been one to be pushed. Even as a toddler, I couldn’t force him to do anything.”
She smiled the way mothers do when talking about their child. Chase had seen it often enough on his own mother’s face when she would reminisce about his and Cindy’s childhood antics.
“So, you and Hank have broken up… for good?”
“I’m sorry to hear that. You make such a handsome couple. It’s great, though, that you can still be friends.”
“To be honest, it hasn’t been easy, Lilah.”
“Oh? Was this a recent thing?” She leaned slightly forward, and Chase could see the genuine interest. His instincts told him this was a caring woman who likely wanted to know everything she could about her son.
“At the start of the summer, so not that recent, but we’re still trying to adjust.”
“That’s another thing my son was never good at, certainly not where I was concerned.”
“I get the impression he worshipped his dad.”
“Oh, he did,” she agreed. “To a fault.”
Hank approached them, staring curiously at Chase. “Here you go… the bag is still in it.”
“Perfect. Thank you, dear.”
Hank sat down, again right against his side, and Chase noticed his ex’s hands, no longer clenched, were trembling. He felt the urge to comfort him, and, reaching over, caught the right one in his and squeezed. He let go immediately after, but it was enough that Hank’s body relaxed. This, they could still do for each other.
Lilah had busied herself with removing her teabag from the cup, but Chase noticed her mouth twitch at his gesture.
Taking a small sip, she set her tea down and directed her gaze to her son. “Well, given how estranged we’ve been, where should we start?”
“Start?” Hank asked.
“Yes, I mean, do we want to gloss over the past and just get to know one another? I know this is hard for you, but it is for me too, and I have no idea how to proceed.”
“You think I do?”
“You called me, dear, and I’m very grateful for that, but how do we ensure it isn’t the only time you do?” Her demeanor was calm, but Chase saw her hand shook worse than her son’s as she delicately took another sip of her steaming hot tea.
“I’m… I’m not sure.”
“Well, is there anything you want to ask me?”
“Ah… those rings for starters… are you married?”
“Yes, of course. I thought you knew that? I called and left voicemails after I sent you an invitation, but you never responded. In the end, it was just a small ceremony at City Hall. It didn’t seem right to have a bigger wedding without you there,” she said in a subdued tone that made Chase sad for them both.
“Okay, well, I didn’t listen to any voicemails, so I don’t know anything about your life either. Who are you married too?”
“Really? You’re still with that guy?”
“Yes, I am. He’s a good man, and he treats me well.”
“Oh, but Dad wasn’t a good man?” Hank asked sharply.
“Not to me, Hank,” she answered with her eyes downcast. “I’m sorry… I know how you feel about him, but I intend to be as honest with you as I can.”
“So you’re going to trash talk him now?”
Her head rose, and Chase saw defiance flash in her glorious eyes. She really was a striking woman.
“Either you want the truth or you don’t. I loved your father for a long time, but he pushed me away.”
“You’re kidding, right?” Hank asked with incredulity in his voice. “That’s sure not what I saw.”
“Then please tell me… what did you see?”
“You want the gory details?”
“Hank, I want us to be open and honest with each other.”
“Okay then, honest I will be. What I saw was a wife who cheated on her husband with our next door neighbor in plain view of everyone.”
“Plain view? I don’t—”
“Yes, Mother, as in out in the open, in broad daylight. You probably don’t know this, but if I put my face against the glass of my bedroom window, I could see you and Cyril having one of your little rendezvous, and if I could, then the neighbors could too.”
“What are you talking about? What rendezvous?”
“The shed in his back yard. I saw you two in there. You could have closed the damn door at least!”
Oh shit! Chase moved his hand from his lap over to Hank’s thigh and squeezed. “Hank, I know you’re upset, but keep your voice down.”
“Sorry,” he said harshly. He turned to Chase looking contrite, repeating, “Sorry,” but in a nicer tone.
Lilah appeared stunned by what Hank had said, but she didn’t back away from the conversation. “I don’t remember any such thing happening out there.”
“Well, trust me, I do.” Hank’s voice lowered even further. “Maybe I can refresh your memory. Your skirt was pulled up, and his hands were all over your ass, and you were kissing up a storm.”
Lilah, with an embarrassed flush, slumped back in her seat. “I’m sorry you saw me like that… I don’t remember it, but I believe you. Cyril and I did steal a few kisses after we fell in love, but never anything more than that while I lived in that house.”
“Seriously? Okay, well, that was one hell of a stolen kiss, and you made a public fool of my dad. They all knew about you and Cyril… what do you think that did to Dad… and me?” Hank put one hand on his forehead, and closed his eyes, as if the memory caused him pain. “Why did you do it, Mom?”
Lilah, so obviously shell-shocked, managed to regroup. “I loved Cyril, and he loved me, but there was more to it than that. Hank, look at me… please.”
Chase was holding his breath as he watched mother and son. It took a few seconds, but Hank finally did what she asked.
“I was still a young woman, and an attractive one to Cyril. Your father and I… we hadn’t had relations in the five years before I made my decision.”
“What? Come on… I don’t believe that!”
“It’s the truth, I swear, and do you know how that made me feel, to know your father didn’t want me anymore… that he wouldn’t touch me?”
“I can’t believe I’m hearing this! Okay… if what you say is true… then why? What the hell happened?”
“I can only guess. I thought it was because of his drinking, but the longer it went on, the more I wondered.”
“What the hell does that mean? Dad didn’t start drinking until after you left.”
“Oh, dear, no, that’s not true, and it’s my fault you believe that. No… listen to me. Your father always had a problem with alcohol, but he was what is called a functioning alcoholic. He could still go to work and do his job every day, and he could still be a wonderful father, but… he stopped being a husband.”
“Wait! For God’s sake, I lived in the same damn house… I would have known if—”
“No, you wouldn’t have, because I covered for him. Every night when he came home from work he would start, not that anyone but me could tell, and after you went to bed, he would go into his den and lock the door, and he would keep drinking until he passed out. Yet, he would get up at six, like clockwork, looking fresh as a daisy after his shower. That’s how you got to see him every morning, and I was the dutiful wife who rid his den of all the empty bottles, in the bin at the plaza down the street.”
“That’s not… it’s not what I remember.”
“I realize that, but I’m not lying, Hank. Your father drank every single evening, and refused to sleep in the same room with me no matter how many times I asked… but he was careful not to let you know that, and so was I.”
“I don’t understand. I never heard you fight, and I never saw him mean or—”
“He wasn’t mean, dear… but it hurts like nothing else when the person you love no longer wants you. The last time we were intimate was because I really wanted another child, so I begged him… but… he couldn’t function. It wasn’t the first time that happened, but it was the last. He wouldn’t try again, and that devastated me.”
Hank shook his head in disbelief. “So, you’re telling me Dad had a drinking problem the entire time you were married?”
She nodded. “It got worse every year, but yes, it didn’t take me long to realize he drank more than he should. As I said, though, he hid it well. No one knew but me… other than your Gran. We talked about it only once, not long before she passed, and she told me your grandfather was the same. He drank himself to death just like….”
“… Dad did,” Hank finished for her.
“You should have told me.”
“You’re right. I see that now, but at the time, your father could do no wrong in your eyes, and I wasn’t about to punish you or him just because he didn’t love me. I thought you would come around when I left, but you didn’t—you were so angry—and I did still care about your father. I… I could have forced him to sell the house, and I could have forced custody, but I didn’t do either of those things. I didn’t want to ruin your life any more than….”
“Well, thank God for small favors,” Hank said with a snarl.
“Right. Sorry.” He looked contrite, but Chase wasn’t sure how long it would last.
“So… how can you say he didn’t love you?” Hank asked in a nicer tone. “I know he did, because he was heartbroken after you left. He would lock himself in his den every night and….” His voice trailed off, and the realization showed on his face. It hit Chase just as clearly, and he felt deep compassion for his ex.
“Do you see now? He might have loved me at one time, and he might even have missed having me around, but locking himself in that room was nothing new. It only seemed that way to you because I wasn’t around to cover for him anymore.”
“I can’t believe this. It’s not making any sense.”
“It didn’t to me either for a long time, but I’m telling you the truth. The fact is, I enabled him, and that did none of us any good.”
“Jesus!” Hank immediately lowered his voice to a hiss. “How do I know you’re being honest with me? He’s not here to defend himself, and—”
“I’m not lying, Hank.”
“Yeah, you said that already. And I’m supposed to just take your word? I know my dad… and you’ve had years to concoct this story and shift all the blame to him. It’s not fair. I never saw Dad cry until after you left.”
Hank was digging his heels in, ignoring the sense of it all, and Chase made the decision to step in again. “Come on, Hank. I get that you want to—”
“Stay out of this, Chase. You weren’t there… you never met him, and what she’s saying is—”
“Hey, you involved me in this. You asked me to come here, so don’t tell me to stay out of it.”
“I’m sorry. I appreciate you being here, but—”
“No buts! Lilah, can you excuse us?”
She nodded vigorously, her face having gone ashen.
“Come on, Hank, we’re going for a walk. Move!” Hank stood up quickly after Chase barked out his command.
It helped that the place was noisy enough they weren’t drawing much attention. Hank headed immediately for the front door and didn’t stop until he was past the corner of the building. Turning, he faced Chase. “I know you think I’m being an ass, but you have to understand Lilah is saying things that are the exact opposite of what I saw.”
Chase reeled in his temper. He’d been ready to blast the man, but as thick-headed as his ex was being, he’s just had the long-held image of his father rocked. “Is it really? Did you ever see them sharing the same bed?”
“Oh really? When?”
“When I was a little kid, I used to play on the bed in between them, on the weekend, and then my dad would get up and make me breakfast.”
“That sounds nice. So what about when you were older? Did you ever see them in the same bed?”
Hank opened his mouth to speak, but hesitated. “I don’t… I guess not, but my dad always got up early. He was… he was already dressed when he came in to wake me up… he… he was a morning person.”
“You know, I couldn’t count the number of times I saw my mom and dad in the same bed, right up until she needed a hospital bed, and even then Dad would squeeze in beside her.”
“So? That doesn’t mean anything.”
“Okay, maybe not, but did you ever see them kiss in those last five years?”
Hank stared off in the distance before he finally met Chase’s eyes. “They didn’t do PDAs.”
“Don’t you think that means something?”
“I… I didn’t. Lots of couples are like that.”
Chase shrugged. “You said I didn’t know your dad, and I didn’t. I wish I had met him. Anyone you loved that much had to have been special.”
“He was a great dad, and he was always there for me. He never batted an eye when I told him I was gay.”
“I believe you, but that doesn’t mean he was a great husband. Hey, don’t get riled—I’m just trying to help.”
“Yeah, I know,” Hank said, and he seemed to deflate.
Chase was relieved to see Hank calming down. “So. Even though I never got to meet him, you told me a lot about what happened, and some of that stuff didn’t add up.”
“Like what? What didn’t add up?”
“How your dad all of a sudden became a drinker.”
“What’s so hard to believe about that? His cheating wife left him and he was heartbroken.”
“Come on, Hank. Who gets irreversible liver disease after only two and a half years of drinking? I’m no doctor, but that sounds unlikely. Doesn’t it strike you as backing up what your mom just said?”
“It didn’t at the time. It all happened so fast, and all I remember the doctors saying is he didn’t have much time left… and I remember all the blood when I found him on the floor. Five weeks later he was gone.”
“I’m sorry. I know that was devastating for you.”
“I was seventeen, and I didn’t have a parent,” he stated flatly, but Chase watched as emotion slammed into him, and tears began to spill out. Yet, the stubbornness in the man quickly rallied. “She has no right to trash him. She has her good life with what’s-his-name. My dad is dead and gone after being in so much pain he couldn’t move an inch without screaming unless he was pumped full of morphine. He was gone before he died,” Hank finished bitterly.
Chase reeled at Hank’s words—he could have been talking about his mother’s last days—but he had work to do. “And you’re blaming Lilah for that? Jesus, man. Their marriage fell apart, but she hung in there a long time before she found someone who could give her some happiness.”
“She cheated on him!”
“Maybe, or maybe it was a just few stolen kisses like she said, but so what if she did cheat? They hadn’t been husband and wife for years.”
“You’re taking her side?”
“No, Hank, you big, stupid moron, I’m taking your side. Good Lord, you’re like a dog with a bone.” He shook his head in disgust as Hank stared at him open-mouthed. “And another thing, that woman in there is nothing like you led me to believe. She’s a good person who loves you. And she didn’t try to force you to leave and come with her. She respected your wishes even though you were only fourteen. Do you realize how hard that must have been for her?”
“She had Cyril,” Hank uttered petulantly. “So, what, I’m supposed to feel sorry for her?”
“No, but you should fucking trust the mother who raised you. Loving your father doesn’t mean you can’t love her.”
The blood drained from Hank’s face, and Chase could see the uncertainty in his eyes before he spoke. “I told you I had a lot of anger towards her,” he said meekly.
“Yes, and I think it’s sad for both of you that you can’t let it go. You’re the one with trust issues, and nobody knows that better than I do.”
”Oh, so this is about you, now?”
Chase felt his frustration rise. “This is about you, Hank. You threw your mother away, and you….”
“Threw you away? That’s what you were going to say, right?”
Chase groaned, pissed at himself for going there. “It doesn’t matter… I shouldn’t have said that. You just said you didn’t have a parent, and that’s what this is about. You’re wrong—you have one sitting inside waiting for you to come back, and you need to make a decision. Keep being bitter and angry and hold onto some conclusions you jumped to years ago, or accept that the woman who raised you for fourteen years is someone you can trust.”
“So, you believe her?”
“Yes, and no matter what you think, I would never lie to you. You can trust Julio’s word for that if you don’t trust mine.” He instantly regretted the sarcastic slip. “Sorry… sorry… I guess I am having my own issues. Look, forget about everything else… I think she’s telling the truth… but it’s up to you to decide where you go from here.”
“You’re really angry with me,” Hank said in a small voice, barely above a whisper.
Chase immediately adjusted his tone. “No… I think I’m disappointed more than anything… that it took Julio for you to believe me, and it’s bleeding into this stuff with your mom. I’ll get over it. What’s important right now is Lilah… and you. You held out your hand when you called her, so let her take it. You can have your mother back—not all of us are so lucky.”
“Oh God! I’m so dense… I’m sorry, Chase, you’re right. Can I give you a hug?”
“Ah, sure.” Chase accepted it, but stepped away quickly. “Ready to do this?”
“I am. Thanks for the kick in the pants.”
“Anytime,” he said as cheekily as he could manage given the previous tension. He must have succeeded in easing Hank’s, because he chuckled as they walked back the way they had come.
When they sat back down at the table, Chase saw the fear in Lilah’s expression, and felt a surge of pity for her. Maybe she hadn’t handled things right in covering for her husband’s drinking, but she was only trying to protect her son, and who were they to judge.
“Are… are you okay, Hank?”
“Yeah. It was a lot to take in all at once, but Chase got me back on track. It might take me a while to get where I need to be, though.”
“Oh, good,” Lilah said with relief. “That’s fair—I know it’s not an easy thing to hear, and I should have told you sooner.”
“It’s okay… I know you tried to talk to me so many different times, but I closed myself off from you. That’s on me. I still have questions, but I do appreciate you being honest with me.”
“And I am so happy you reached out today. Hank, there is one more thing I think I should tell you.”
“Okay,” he said, drawing the word out.
“Do you remember the framed photo of your father and his old roommate from college?”
“Will? Yeah, it was always on the bookcase behind his desk… and it was important to him.”
“Yes, it was. I met Will when I first started dating your dad. He was pleasant enough, but very quiet. He’d say hi to me, but that’s about it.”
“What are you getting at, Mom?”
She sighed, taking a sip of tea before continuing. “I could tell Will didn’t like it when I was around their group of friends, but I was three years younger than them, so I assumed it had something to do with him seeing me as a kid.”
“Maybe he was just quiet like you said. I don’t see what—”
“I’m getting to it. That photo… one day it struck me how they looked so happy. I never saw your father with a smile like that in any of our photos.”
Hank turned to Chase, frowning before turning back to his mother. “Are you telling me Dad and Will had feelings for each other? That Dad was gay?”
“I’m not… I can’t be certain, but it would explain so many things.”
“Mom, seriously? Come on, that’s insane.”
He followed up with a scoffing noise, and an intrigued Chase nudged him with his elbow. “Just listen to her.”
“Should I go on?” Lilah asked, picking up her tea and putting it down without taking a sip.
“Go ahead, but don’t expect me to believe your crazy theory.”
God, the man was exasperating. “Hank, you wanted to clear the air with your mom.”
“I know, and I said go ahead. Jeez.”
Lilah looked back and forth between them, her lovely brows creased. “I’m only telling you this because I think it’s something you can handle, and I don’t want to hide anything from you.”
Hank nodded slowly as he met her direct gaze. “All right, fair enough… keep going, and I’ll listen.”
“Okay. So, I knew Will and your dad had a falling out, and that Will had switched rooms not long after we started getting serious, but Henry never told me why. He absolutely refused to talk about him. I saw Will around campus after that but he never acknowledged me… even when I said hello. Three months later, you were on your way, and your father and I got married.” She smiled, but it slipped quickly away.
“Anyway, one night when you were about eleven, I heard a loud crash that came from the den. You heard it too, because you opened your door, but I told you to go back to sleep. It scared me, though, so I went downstairs and listened at the door. I could hear some mumbling, and then I heard some choking noises, so I got worried. I had my own key to his office, so I ran to the kitchen and got it.”
Her expression changed to a pained one before she continued. “I peeked in to make sure he was okay. You’re right that your father wasn’t a crier, but he had that framed photo against his chest and he was leaning back in his chair, crying really hard and saying Will’s name over and over. He was obviously drunk, and I’m pretty sure he didn’t see me, so I closed the door quietly and went and sat in the living room for hours. I say I’m not certain, but that night I felt like I was."
Hank, with his mouth slightly open, leaned forward. So did Chase. Lilah had their attention.
“I went back and listened a few times, and finally heard snoring. The next day I found out what had made the noise… the glass was gone from the picture frame, and most of the pieces were in the wastebasket. The photo was back on the bookcase, so I cleaned up the rest of the glass and got a new piece from another frame and replaced it. I never said a word about it to Henry, and he didn’t bring it up either. I had no idea whether there’d ever been contact between your dad and Will over the years, but that night made me imagine all kinds of things.”
Chase felt Hank’s weight lean against him as they both sat back at the same time. It was as if he needed the contact. Chase returned the pressure as he contemplated what he’d just heard.
“Hank? Do you resent me telling you this?”
Hank didn’t answer the question, but he did speak, so softly Chase had to strain to hear him over the sounds going on in the coffee shop. “He asked me to put that photo in his casket when the time came, and I did. He made me promise, and I never thought of what it might mean. He was so sick when he asked, he could barely talk. He always said Will was the best friend he’d ever had. Man, was I stupid.”
“No, dear… you loved your dad, so why would you question his request? You didn’t know any of this until just now. Maybe… knowing you were gay… maybe it was his way of sharing an important part of himself with you while he could.”
Hank’s eyebrows rose, and he looked skeptical. Chase didn’t think it mattered whether Lilah was right or not—what mattered was how comforting she was trying to be for her son. In that moment, seeing her gentle compassion, he had no doubt he would’ve enjoyed having her as his mother-in-law.
“You didn’t answer me. Do you wish I hadn’t told you?”
Hank blew out a long breath. “No, as much as it freaked me out at first, I’m glad you did. For years I never understood much of anything, so I jumped to my own conclusions, as Chase has pointed out to me. It’s not the only time I’ve been guilty of that, and it’s come at a cost. I’m… I just feel bad that Dad was so sad. I didn’t notice anything until after you left, and I thought it was all about losing you.”
“You gave him joy, never doubt that, and it was right that you stayed with him. As much as I hated it, I knew he needed you. I did too, but he needed you more. I had no idea his liver was that bad, but I wasn’t surprised when I learned of it. He had a disease, and that wasn’t your fault or mine.”
“I guess he was good at hiding things. Do you think he drank because of Will, or did he inherit it from his father?”
“I don’t know… maybe both. Are you worried you could follow in his footsteps?”
The question was met with an extended silence as Hank leaned forward again, focused on his now clasped hands.
It began to scare Chase. “Hank, are you thinking you could be like him? I’ve certainly never seen anything to indicate you might be… I mean, you’ve never thought much of people drinking, right?”
Hank turned to him, and his expression was thoughtful. Their eyes met and held. “No. No matter how bad things got—no matter how sad I’ve been—I’ve never wanted to drown my sorrows in booze. I’m still the same, in that regard at least. Trust me.” A small, sad smile played briefly on his lips.
“I believe you.” Sorrows? Was Hank talking about them?
“Oh, I’m so thankful to hear that?” Lilah said, bringing Hank’s attention back to her.
“Were you worried about that?”
“It’s always been in the back of my mind, but that was because I didn’t know what was going on in your life. You wouldn’t let me in.”
Hank sighed, and then nodded. “Let’s see if we can change that, okay?”
“I’d like that very much.”
“Me too, Mom.”
Chase was enthralled as he watched Hank’s hand reach over and cover his mother’s. Tension he’d been holding onto, left his body. As long as he’d known Hank, he’d hoped for just this moment, and now that it was here, he was glad he got to witness it. Mothers and sons… in his experience, it was a relationship to be treasured.
Thanks for reading. What did you think after hearing Lilah's story? Please share your thoughts with us if you can, and leave a 'like' on the front story page if you are enjoying this story. Also, thanks to my editor, Timothy M., for his stellar work. Cheers!