Based on a true story.
It was the middle of December in Toledo, Ohio. The weather was typical, cold and dull. The roads, like the sky, were an ashy gray reminiscent of the salt trucks and snowplows that had recently cleared the path for the morning commute. He asked to meet at a local IHOP less than five miles from my school. It was my senior year. I had a 4.0 GPA and I was president of my class. Not then, nor now -- twenty-three years later -- could I think of anything that would have kept me from accepting his invitation.
It's difficult to articulate the overwhelming feelings of anxiety that led up to that morning's breakfast. Despite what I'm told are good looks inherited from my mother, I ached more than anything to have a slight resemblance to the man equally responsible for my existence. As I stepped out of the shower and stared in the mirror wondering what, if any, physical features we might share, I was flooded with a heightened awareness of my adopted father, our challenged relationship and his subconscious daily reminders that I was 'lucky" to have him -- that in the grand scheme of life, I really didn't matter.
I tried on shirt after shirt, tie after tie, none of which felt worthy of our very first meeting. So instead, I switched my focus to something I could offer, present -- as opposed to my physical presence -- and searched through hundreds of photos gathering only those I felt best represented the first 17 years of my life. Clearly I wanted, perhaps needed, a safety net should I not be the young man he had hoped to meet. Somewhere in the back of my mind, or maybe my heart, our meeting was a second chance -- one to prove I was a son worth wanting.
I pulled into the parking lot and immediately spotted his brand new baby blue Cadillac. I parked my '85 Plymouth Reliant nearby, grabbed my box of photos and slid over the bench-seat so I could exit through the passenger side door. That car was my first major purchase in life -- paid for by pedaling hundreds of newspapers around our neighborhood daily -- and although I had earned enough money to buy and keep it filled with gas -- at $.89 a gallon -- the driver's side door was broken, and by no means a priority to have fixed. Upon exiting the vehicle, wearing my rarely worn dress shoes, I slipped and fell on a patch of ice. It occurred to me at that very moment, as I quickly stood up and brushed off the outfit I had deemed a winner, simultaneously collecting the photos off the ground before they were ruined with moisture, and as I glanced at the tinted windows of a restaurant I was about to enter, that I should've asked him what he looked like, rather then the make and model of a car he drove. Through the years, I had seen only one photo of him holding me as a newborn, but with the plethora of activity racing through my mind, I wasn't certain whether the face I recalled was a dream or reality.
Within minutes, the reality had set in. Although twenty or so single men were seated throughout the restaurant, one of them, seated in a booth against the back wall, overheard the elderly hostess raise her voice as she tried to gain my attention, and looked my way. We met eyes; he removed his reading glasses and set aside his newspaper. I thanked the woman for her help, and slowly walked towards him, box of photos in hand. Instantly realizing he was nowhere near a window that would have allowed him to see my grand entrance in the parking lot, a feeling of relief coupled with a feeling of pure angst, came over me as I quickly debated whether to hug him or shake his hand.
With trepidation, I tossed the ball in his court and extended my right hand, while using my left to clutch the box of photos to my chest. He took the lead, grabbed my hand, and pulled me in for the pat-on-the-back hug type of "masculine" embrace most men have experienced at least once in their life. We took our seats, and I quickly went for a sip of water, but the shaking of my hand caused the water to spill, me to panic, and feeling defeated the first words that came out were, "I'm so sorry. I'm really nervous." Within a matter of seconds, which felt like minutes, my nerves had settled, my heart slowed down and he had my full attention as he told his "life story." I reciprocated with mine -- all seventeen years of it -- shared my box of photos, and ninety minutes later drove to school with a heavy heart and a mind racing with emotions.
We had met only a handful of times after that breakfast, and according to him, his current wife and five daughters have never known of his affair with my mother and therefore, could never know of me. I respected his wishes over the years and was grateful for his willingness to engage in a relationship. I was comfortable being part of a secret, and at that time, felt it was only fair to let it be his secret to tell.
It was six years after that morning and three days before leaving for California, I drove two and a half hours to a Cracker Barrel near Dayton, Ohio to once again, meet him for breakfast. I had just turned twenty-three, graduated from college and made the decision I was moving to Hollywood. I couldn't wait to tell him.
I'm not quite sure how I expected him to react upon hearing of my decision to give up "everything" to pursue a dream in the entertainment industry. Looking back, I realize the kid in me wanted the stamp of approval, the "I believe in you..." speech, dare I even say the, "I'm proud of you..." mantra. Yet without realizing it then, but recognizing it now, it was arguably those very words he never spoke that served as my official transition to adulthood. It was the rocking back-and-forth in his chair, and his inability to make eye contact that made me question his intention for meeting me that morning. No longer was I the nervous kid spilling water. And no longer was he the man I wanted so badly to call dad. But even so, I wanted more than anything to forget the past, embrace the present and if at all humanly possible, have a relationship with my biological father.
As we stood in line, waiting to pay the bill -- a normalcy at Cracker Barrel -- he glanced down at the shelves filled with sugary snacks and said, "Can I get you a candy bar or something for the ride home?" That very question, and his face when asking it, will forever epitomize a phrase I have recently learned and grown to love, "The foolishness of the human condition." How can a man responsible for bringing a human life in this world, never recognize said life as a human worth knowing -- emotionally or financially -- and look directly in the eyes of that life after 23 years and offer the words equivalent to those of the bag boy at your local grocery store, " Would you care for paper or plastic?"
I had no desire for the candy bar. Instead, I pulled my camera out of my baggy jeans pocket - it was still a few years before the arrival of camera phones -- and asked the hostess nearby if she wouldn't mind taking a picture of us. We walked outside, me with a little extra pep in my step, and he, clearly terrified of what he was stepping into, as the hostess directed us where to stand. I put my arm around him. He reciprocated. And with the woman's sweet call to smile, I did, and a click sound was heard. We pulled it in for one last pat-on-the-back masculine embrace, walked backed to our respective cars and drove away. That was the last time we saw each other.
As soon as the Walgreen's clerk called my name, I quickly approached the desk and she handed me an envelope of photos to thumb through to ensure they were mine. One by one, I flipped through the stack anticipating what "our photo" would look like. After all of these years, I was finally going to have something physical I could hold, look at whenever and wherever I wanted, and appreciate how I became to be. Perhaps selfishly, maybe even more importantly, that photo would prove to be a reminder of my ability to deflect his flippant summation of my entire life's self worth as nothing more than a candy bar for the ride home.
In the end, the photo was far more symbolically powerful than either of us ever would have imagined. There I stood, tall, attractive, proud, smiling from ear to ear, with my arm around a man, whose face only was so perfectly blocked by the reflection of the rising sun.