Chase decided returning to work the following morning was the best thing for him. Nothing good would be found in another day of moping—he had to keep forging ahead. He’d gone online to look for apartments, after returning from picking up his clothes, but it’d only served to make him more morose. He could stay at his dad’s indefinitely, no doubt, but he had to begin thinking of ‘moving on’ like Hank was. The idea of a new start, though, sent him into a tailspin. Fighting it, he collapsed on the sofa and turned on the TV in an effort to distract his thoughts.
Having no success at all, he could feel the darkness coming for him. About to head out for a run in a now desperate attempt to ward it off, his cell phone vibrated. He observed the caller’s ID with a small amount of dread, but at the same time, welcomed the respite.
Taking a deep breath, he answered. “Hi, Stacy.”
“Hi, Chase… sweetie, are you okay?”
Settling back into the sofa, he pulled his knees up until his position was almost fetal. “Not really, no.”
“That’s what I thought. Is there anything I can do?”
“You just did, by calling me. I was worried that… that you wouldn’t want to be friends anymore.”
“Oh, Chase, I’m sorry I didn’t call sooner. I don’t want to pick sides in this. Hank’s been my best bud since public school, but I love you too. You know that, right?”
“I hoped so, but I don’t want to put you in the middle. He came first, so—”
“By a few years, yeah, but it’s not about that. He’s in pretty bad shape.”
“Of course he is. We both know how he feels about betrayal. You have to understand I suffered along with him when his family broke up, and then when his father drank himself to death over it… he’s never forgiven his mother for what she did.”
“Yeah, and he thinks I did the same kind of thing.”
“No! Not… not exactly. Look, Stacy, I would never have had sex with anyone else, but I did drink too much, flirt too much, and got into a situation….”
“You kissed a guy after he proposed, and Hank said he had his hands all over you in a bathroom stall,” she said with both reproach and disappointment.
Chase winced at her tone. “I did, and that’s cheating, you’re right. I think—well, it doesn’t matter what I think. Hank’s done with me, and I can’t say I blame him.”
“I’m sorry. Look, I shouldn’t have said anything, but you know how defensive I am of him. That’s not why I called, though.”
“You’re only telling me what you’re thinking—what everyone is thinking by now.”
“I don’t know what to say. I wish I could tell you something encouraging, but he’s so determined, and he won’t listen to me.”
“Maybe he shouldn’t. I don’t know why he stayed with me as long as he did.”
“He stayed because he loved you—he still does—and he understood what you were going through. We all did, so stop talking like that.”
“It’s hard not to when I’ve hurt him so badly. I’ve been a burden more than a boyfriend.”
“Oh sweetie, that’s not true, and I can tell you he never thought that for a second. Hank, ah… he mentioned—”
“Mentioned what?” Chase asked quickly.
He heard her sigh through the phone. “That you could be backsliding… into depression again.”
Again. He heard the worry in her voice and it bothered him. She saw him as weak, and she wasn’t the only one. He saw some irony in how that made him feel, seeing as how he’d considered going back on his meds for all the wrong reasons. “I’m not going to let that happen. I saw my psychiatrist today, and I have another appointment on Thursday.”
“Already? Oh, that’s great. Can I ask how it went?”
Chase started to answer simply, but then stopped. His mood lifted slightly as he thought about her question. “Believe it or not, I had a sort of breakthrough.”
“A breakthrough? That sounds positive.”
“Yeah, understanding the reason for my freak-outs is half the battle, right?”
“Care to share?”
“Have you ever heard of survivor’s guilt?”
“I don’t think so. Oh, wait, is that when someone dies, like in a car crash, and the ones who don’t die in the same crash feel guilty?”
“Exactly, but it doesn’t have to be a crash.”
“Ah, I see… your mom?”
“Yeah, I didn’t see it for what it was—I thought it was part of being sad—but now I know. I’ve been feeling as if I don’t deserve to be happy after what she went through, like it’s wrong to live my own life.”
“That’s crazy… sorry, I shouldn’t—”
“Don’t apologize, Stacey. It is crazy, but that’s how depression distorts everything. To tell you the truth, I’m kind of proud I figured it out on my own, though, that it wasn’t just sadness. I’ve been carrying around this fear, or what felt like fear, but anxiety does that, so I just figured that’s what it was. Now I know it was more about guilt, if that makes any sense. I talked to my sister and she said she’s had the same issues. Anyway, Dr. Chorney confirmed it.” His mood lifted even more as he spoke the words.
“It does make sense, and you should be proud. So….”
“Yes, it’s why I acted out on Friday. I was sabotaging my own happiness when I said no to Hank. It has to be the reason, because I can’t imagine not wanting to spend my life with him.” He pictured the hurt look when he’d turned the man down, and knew with certainty he was speaking the truth. ”After that, I felt so guilty, I fucked up even more….”
“Does Hank know what… did you tell him this?”
“I talked about it some, or I tried, but I don’t know what he heard. He was determined, like you said, and he didn’t really believe anything I told him. He says we have to move on.”
“That’s what he told me too. It’s not because he doesn’t love you.”
“Maybe not, but he hates me now too, and his life will be easier without me.”
“Come on, Chase. I told you to stop talking like that—it’s not true at all. Do you really think it’s easier for him to go through this?”
“No, I guess not… I’m sure it isn’t. Did he say anything to you today?” He allowed a flicker of hope to rise up as he asked the question.
“No, just… he called me this morning, and that’s when he said what he did about your depression—he asked me if I could keep Rex for another day or two.”
“Oh, so Rex is still there?”
“Yeah. I love having him, but I think he’s a little confused. He heard Hank’s voice on the phone and has been waiting at the door most of the day.”
“Aww… poor boy. Can he hear me?”
“No, he’s downstairs.”
“Maybe you should let him hear my voice.”
“Not a good idea, hon. He’s finally settled down, and when I came upstairs he and Don were having a snoring contest.”
“Rex will win.”
“Don’t be too sure… hubby can drown out the vacuum cleaner.”
Chase chuckled. He’d heard Don snore, and Stacey was right.
“So… is Hank getting custody?”
“We haven’t talked about it yet. Maybe when I get settled in a new place we can share him.”
“It would be nice if you could.”
“Yeah, it would, but I’ll let Hank decide. He didn’t ask for any of this.”
“No, he didn’t, but neither did Rex. He loves both his dads.”
Chase’s heart sank, and he wished he could turn back time, and stop himself from breaking all their lives. “Yeah, it will have to be whatever’s best for Rex.”
“I’m sorry this is happening, Chase.”
“Yeah, maybe, but we both know Hank, and he doesn’t say anything he doesn’t mean.”
“He could change his mind.”
“Could you… if it was Don?”
Her silence spoke for her.
“I have to go. Need to get my clothes ready for work.”
“Okay, call me if you want to talk.”
“I will. Thanks for looking after Rex.”
“No thanks necessary. Chase? Are you all right?”
Good question. “Yeah, I’m fine,” he lied.
Any thoughts of going for a run had left, along with his appetite. He turned off the TV and went to bed, closing the blinds on the golden, evening sun. Alone in the darkness, he performed his breathing exercises… in through the nose… out through the mouth… in through the nose… out….
Work was a blur. He delegated and supervised, gave full attention to every project that crossed his desk, and put all his energy into being his best and brightest self, but when the day was done, he barely made it to his car. His propped-up mania had deserted him, leaving him lethargic and defeated. He recognized the mood swing for what it was: an invitation to fold up, and the best cure for that was Hank.
He visited the urge to crawl to him on his hands and knees and plead for another chance, but Dr. Chorney’s warning stopped him. He couldn’t force the man to take him back, but he could succeed in driving him further away. So, after sitting in the parking lot for a half hour, he started the car and drove to his temporary home, accepting he only had himself to rely on.
“How did today go?’
“Are you being honest?”
Chase started to answer his sister, and then hesitated, remembering his promise to her. “As far as work, yeah. Allan is being supportive, and he’s letting me leave early tomorrow for my appointment.”
“He sounds like a great boss.”
“And… as for you?”
“That’s… that’s a different story.”
“What are you doing right now?”
“Laying on the couch.”
“Have you eaten?”
“No. I’m not hungry.”
“Chase… I’m coming over.”
“No, don’t. Look, I’m feeling down, yeah, but I should be.”
“Yes, and down is one thing, but slipping into that head-space—”
“You think I don’t know that?” he snapped.
“Don’t get mad at me. I’m only trying to help.”
“I know, I know. Sorry.”
“Don’t worry about it, little brother. I am coming over and I’m bringing food. Okay?”
“Yeah, okay. I think I’d like that. Thanks, Cindy.” It was a big step to admit he didn’t want to be alone.
“Anytime. That’s what big sisters are for.”
Chase managed to shake off his lassitude, even showering and changing before Cindy arrived. He’d had no appetite at all until he opened the door and smelled the dish she carried.
“Oh my God, is that—”
“Mom’s mac and cheese casserole? Yes, it is.”
“Did you put green onion and—”
“Yes, Chase, it’s her exact recipe, including the bacon and pimento, and the breadcrumb and parmesan crust. Now, can you let me in? This thing is heavy,” she complained with a smile.
Sitting at the breakfast bar that divided the kitchen from the dining room, Chase breathed in the familiar dish, his taste buds watering as he watched the lid come off and the steam rise. It was the dish his mother would prepare for him when he needed comfort for any reason.
Once, she’d made it three times in one week, before she’d finally put her foot down upon his fourth request. It was the week after he’d told her and his father he liked boys. She flatly told him, with a straight face, he was beginning to smell like cheese. A few seconds later, they were laughing so hard they ended up on the kitchen floor. He grinned at the memory, and then dug in. Halfway through his plate, he looked sideways at this sister.
“So, you just happened to have this ready?”
“Right,” he said, rolling his eyes and smirking.
They continued in silence, and Chase was full when he pushed his plate away.
“Had enough?” Cindy had turned on her stool and was watching him.
“Me too. You can have the rest tomorrow. Hey, you didn’t even eat the bread.”
“Left more room for the mac and cheese. That was so good—I didn’t know you could cook.”
“Smart ass,” she said, smacking his arm. “I have Mom’s recipe box, so I’ve been working my way through them.”
“How many have you burned, because I remember when she tried to teach you?”
“Shut up. I didn’t burn anything. I spilled cake batter on the element that time, and there was just a little smoke.”
Chase chuckled. “Right, then why did we have to open all the doors and windows in the middle of winter?” It felt good to tease his sister as he stared into eyes the same bright green as his own. She was only two years older, but the fact was they almost looked like twins with their wavy, dark blond hair, and the same high cheekbones.
There were a few times, before he hit puberty, he was mistaken for his sister. He gritted his teeth at the memory of being called ‘pretty’ on a number of occasions. Fortunately, his jaw took on a squarer look as he got older, and he went from diminutive and waif-like, to tall and athletically built, but he could still see himself in her. He could see their mother in her as well.
“Mom would be proud of you, sis.”
“She was always proud of both of us.”
Chase nodded, but looked down at this empty plate. “I’m not sure she be proud of me now.”
“Is that depression talking?
“What do you mean?’
“Do you really believe that? Knowing Mom, you believe that?”
“I don’t know. I guess not. It’s just, what I did to Hank is not something she’d be pleased with.”
“I get why you’re feeling guilty, Chase, but you’re wrong about Mom.”
“Am I?” he asked, sharper than he meant to, but his regrets were showing no sign of diminishing. “My incredibly handsome, thoughtful, devoted boyfriend, who’d just proposed, found me in a bathroom stall with another man. Even I have trouble wrapping my head around it.”
“Okay, so what do you think Mom would say?”
“I don’t know what she’d say, but she’d be disappointed.”
“For God’s sake. Would it even have happened if she hadn’t died?”
“What are you talking about?! She did die, so what the fuck does it matter?”
“It matters because we haven’t let go of her yet, and it’s messing with you—with both of us.”
“Yes, us. Why do you think I haven’t been in a relationship for two years?”
Her question caught him off guard. “Sorry, I didn’t even realize….”
“It’s okay. We all became disconnected. Every minute of every day, we were never able to forget what Mom was dealing with. You, me, Dad… we couldn’t even look at each other most of the time she was wasting away. At least you could escape to your apartment.”
Her words were like cold water being tossed on him. “I really am sorry, Cind. I never thought about you being right down the hall from her every single night.”
“Forget it. I didn’t mean it was harder for me. It wasn’t easy for any of us, but we got through it. We survived, and now we have to learn to flourish because that’s what she would want. You get me?”
Chase stood up and held out his arms. “I get you, and I’m sorry I snapped at you.” When she moved into his embrace, he was reminded she was the same height their mother had been. He could rest his chin on the top of her head too… until she’d lost the ability to stand.
“So can we finally let her go?”
Chase nodded, fighting tears. “I want to, but I don’t know how. I think we need more time.”
Cindy pushed away from him. “No… no, no more time. Looks what it’s cost you. Look what it has cost Dad… and me.”
“Dad’s okay, isn’t he? Isn’t that the point of the trip? Dr. Chorney says a change of scenery is a good thing.”
“We’ll see, but he couldn’t even sleep in the house after mom died. He hired movers, and I had to go through everything—all Mom’s stuff—and donate a lot of it. I hope traveling isn’t another way to avoid dealing with her death.”
“I should have been there with you.”
“You couldn’t have handled it then. We both know it, and we didn’t have Dad in so long, I didn’t even try to get through to him.”
Chase nodded again, wiping his eyes as he remembered those first few weeks. Thank God for Hank. “Cindy, do you blame Dad for checking out on us?”
“Of course not. I don’t blame anyone.”
“Have you heard from him?”
“Two short emails, that’s all.”
“Two for me too.”
“See. We don’t talk as a family. We’re almost ghosts to each other while we lick our wounds. Mom would hate that.”
“Oh, hell yeah, she would.”
“And she’d shake her fist and stomp her foot, maybe even slap us upside the head with her oven mitt.”
Chase snorted, blowing snot partway out his nose. He grabbed a napkin just in time.
Cindy giggled. “Now that’s the annoying little brother I remember.”
“And you’re the nagging older sister… still.”
Both of them were smiling. “See, Chase? All we have to do is start talking.”
He sobered, despite her optimism. “I’m not sure it’s that simple.”
“Okay, I’m not saying it’s the only thing. You’re back in therapy, and I still go regularly. Think about it. Your immediate reaction to me saying I was coming over was ‘No, don’t, I’m fine,’ but you weren’t, were you?”
“No, and I’m glad you were your usual pushy self.”
She rolled her eyes, but didn’t get distracted. “And Hank said you didn’t want him to stay on Monday night. You told him you were okay and didn’t need him.”
“It wasn’t that. I felt guilty as hell. He looked so worn out, and I was embarrassed and ashamed, and I didn’t want to fall apart in front of him… which is exactly what I ended up doing.”
“He was trying to be a friend, and you attempted to push him away.”
“Oh crap, you’re right. I did. I wanted to be alone so I could—”
“Nurse your wounds. Wallow in the pain that’s become a part of us,” she said so matter-of-factly that Chase groaned.
“Fuck. How do other people do this? Lots of people lose their moms or dads and they deal with it and move on. I feel like such a wimp sometimes.”
“Hey, you’re not a wimp—but you were very sensitive as a kid, and you and Mom had an extra special bond. And, as far as other people, families rely on each other. We stopped doing that, and that’s not just your fault. We all made mistakes.”
Chase was going to disagree—the fact being he was the one screwing up and making horrendous decisions, not Cindy and his father—but he knew she would just keep propping him up. So instead, he pondered aloud. “I wonder if Hank can ever get past what I did.”
“This isn’t about Hank now, Chase. It’s about you. You need to forgive yourself.”
He scoffed bitterly. “That’s easier said than done. I miss him so much.”
“I know you do.” This time she was the one giving him a hug.
His second appointment with Dr. Chorney was even more enlightening. He showed him the meager notes he’d taken—putting his thoughts in writing was difficult—and told him about his conversation with Cindy. They discussed his family for much of the time, especially the deep connection he’d always had with his mom, and the effects of it being forever severed.
As they got farther into the conversation, Dr. Chorney said it was time to delve deeper. He helped Chase see he hadn’t just lost his mother and their very important relationship. His father had been MIA for ages, trying to cope with the unfathomable, and having no parent to turn to, had allowed that first depression to get such a good hold on him.
The doctor gave him some surprising food for thought, saying he might have been in an adult relationship, but part of him had been stuck in a childhood of sorts, missing his mommy and daddy. That was an eye-opener for Chase, but he didn’t balk at his supposition, instead listening and weighing each word.
Still, he imparted, there was no blame to be doled out. Loss of such magnitude, be it a child, a parent, or a partner, was full of pitfalls. Just like his children, their father was trying to deal with the guilt of not being able to help his wife, as well as the certainty he would eventually lose her. Withdrawing from his kids was likely an attempt to protect them from his own personal agony.
Chase got the doctor’s point. It all made sense to him, because he’d lived it, and while his theory was an emotional one to hear, it shed more light on his state of mind and the depression he’d always seen as a weakness.
But, even more importantly, he had a new understanding of why his father had retreated from everyone but his wife. Chase did have some buried anger toward him, he could admit that now, but he no longer thought of him as having abandoned them. He was only trying to navigate through his own pain, and there was no right or wrong way to do it. A concern was building for the man. Was he okay?
Dr. Chorney finished by bringing the discussion back to the beginning, stressing to Chase that while his mother had died, she wasn’t gone. She lived in his thoughts and memories, and once the grief subsided, he would be able to find great solace in the happier moments of their shared past. He got that point too… because it was happening. During yesterday’s conversation with Cindy, he’d been able to remember some special moments with his mom without feeling sad, and that was a big deal.
Once again, Chase left without a prescription, pleased with the added clarity that had come out of their session. He was beginning to believe just because he’d once fallen into depression, he wasn’t fragile at all, and he could get through this.
As much as he hated the idea, he could move on from Hank if he had to. Maybe his therapist was right. Maybe part of him had been stuck in childhood, which left Hank to be a surrogate parent as much as a partner. He sat in his car and let that sink in, feeling shame at how dependent and selfish he’d been. But, he finally concluded, those days were over. It was time to leave them behind, and stand on his own two feet. He didn’t know exactly how he would do it—he just knew he had to.
Thanks for reading.. and thank you to my editor, Timothy M., for all he does. I know this story is rather heavy so far... is it too heavy for you? Please share your thoughts if you can. Your input is extremely valuable to me. If you find Chase and Hank's journey worthy, please leave a 'like' on the main story page under the story description. Cheers!