The Stranger and the Friend
“Hey there, I’ll be in your area. I picked up a trip to the Northwest, let’s go get something to eat.”
“Okay! Let me know about what time you’ll be in the area, and I’ll make sure I’m out of work, and ready!”
“Okay, sounds good!”
Sounds innocent enough, right? Don’t worry, this doesn’t lead into a gruesome tale of murder and dismembered bodies. I mean, would I be telling you that sort of information if my head had been chopped off? No. I suppose I could write, but I would probably only get about three sentences out before my body finally quit working due to the massive loss of blood.
No, this is a story that sums up a lot about my past, my present, and my future.
I waited in the parking lot for him to show up. He arrived, and went immediately to the pump to fill up the truck. “Wait for me over there, and I’ll find a place to park.”
After about 10 minutes of waiting, he walked over. “There’s nothing here. I found another place down the road. Follow me there.” I agreed, and we started down the road, only to be driving for 30 minutes. This way, that way, under ways, over ways. And we ended up back in the same parking lot.
“Well, I don’t know what to do,” he said. “Did you see those trucks parked over there by the casino? I can park my truck there.”
We started over towards the Casino, and he parked the big rig. He disappeared in the back, and emerged five minutes later, completely changed. He got into the car, and I said, ‘Where would you like to go?”
“How about we go in there?” He was motioning to the casino. “Okay,” I said. “They have a few restaurants inside. That should be fine.”
We find parking, making small chat about the day, mostly his, and start to walk in the casino. As soon as we get inside the doors, he hands me $20 and says, “Go play. I’ll come find you.” And then he’s gone.
Not gone. But gone. In a different part of the casino, playing whatever games he could find. I stood there for a moment, looking like a lost puppy, with $20 in my hands. “Okay,” I thought to myself. “Let’s see if I can get lucky.”
I sat down at a slot machine, and played the $20. It was gone in a matter of minutes, as is the case. I wandered back over to him. “How are you doing?”
“Doing okay. I just won $100 on $20.” “Congratulations,” I said. He cashed his ticket out of the machine, and went up to the teller, handed it in, and got his cash. After receiving the cash, he turned to me and handed me another $10. “I don’t want you to be bored while I play. I’ll be right here.” He sat down, and played.
I sat near him, and played that $10. It went incredibly fast, and I turned and saw him. He was staring intently into the one-armed bandit’s screen, clearly engrossed in the game. I needed to use the restroom. So, I went.
I was gone for maybe a minute, at the most. When I came back, he was gone. I looked around to see if maybe he had moved to a nearby machine. No dice.
I wandered around the area, looking, trying to place a call on my cell, but reception was spotty. I walked up and down the casino, looking for his distinctive white shirt, but nothing was popping out. I couldn’t find him.
Of course, this casino was pretty large. About the size of two football fields. Finally, I decided I would page him. I had sent three text messages, and was able to get out two phone calls, but I was hearing nothing back, and the evening was waning, and my stomach was getting more and more hungry.
I went to approach the concierge desk, and then I saw him, playing some sort of Asian-themed game. “There you are!” “Yeah, this game isn’t doing so well,” he said. Silence. “Are you getting hungry?” I asked. “Yeah. Let’s get something to eat.” He cashed out.
We went to the small deli, and he ordered the meals for us. As I was telling the server what I wanted my sides to be, another server placed a new batch of food into the serving area rather forcefully, sending hot water up and over the spit guard and onto the front of my body, hitting my hand. More shocked than anything, I just stood there. This was turning out to be a perfect representation of what this evening had become, just a complete and utter mess.
She apologized, and handed me some burn gel, but fortunately it was more the shock of the water than the actual temperature. I was okay, as my clothes took the brunt of the liquid. I received my food, and went and sat down.
We then went and proceeded to have a conversation, me asking about his wife, about the boys, about babies that were on the way. He answered, as most people would. People like to talk about themselves.
I wasn’t trying to mitigate the silence, simply just keep the conversation flowing. After all, we hadn’t seen each other in five years. This was the first time he had been out to my neck of the woods since 1998. There was a lot of catching up to do. I was busy rehearsing two shows, had a job interview lined up, was getting ready to celebrate a birthday, and had a son of whom I was very proud, due to his scholastic achievements this year. Lots to talk about, if he had asked. But why volunteer the information when clearly he wasn’t interested?
After about 20 minutes of this uncomfortableness, he said, “Well, I think I’m going to go back and play some more. I’ll walk you out.” We walked out to my car, making more small talk. “I’ll call you tomorrow.” And then he said, “I love you,” and opened his cell phone, and walked off.
I stood there, somewhat dumbfounded, wondering how in the world how I could be completely different from this man, a man whose name I share, a man whose DNA courses through my veins. He may be my father, but he was a stranger to me. Completely different, separated by 36 years and 2,500 miles.
As I started my drive home, I thought long and hard about what had transpired, and made a decision. I picked up the phone and called my stepfather.
“I just want you to know how much I appreciate you. And I want you to know how much it means to me.”
“Where did that come from? It’s sweet, but completely out of the blue.”
“Sometimes you have to let the people who’ve made a difference in your life know. And so I’m taking this time.”
“Wow. Thank you. Is everything okay?”
“I’m fine. I can tell you the story, if you’d like, or we can leave it at that.”
“Tell me the story. Come on.”
And so I did, albeit a truncated version of what you saw above. I got somewhat emotional, at 36 years, driving down the highway with my headset in, speaking to the man who had married into our family, raised me and my siblings as his own, and provided the best he knew how. Rocky relationship at first, but something that has grown to be admired and loved over the years.
I closed by simply saying, “I love you.”
And that was the Sunday evening spent with two men, my father, the stranger, and my dad, the friend.