Just Between Us – Brandon Adams

Caroline pulverized her TJ’s bag to grab the last three stuffed mushrooms. She finished checker-boarding her cookie sheet with Georgio on speakerphone: “It’s been six days since we’ve ka-ding-a-dinged,” he said – part whine, part moan.

“Papa’s still here visiting. Can you literally believe it?” She found a home for the last mushroom: “Finito,” she said, under her breath.

“Doesn’t he usually go back to Carlottaville–

“It’s Charlottesville, babe,” she said.

“Doesn’t he usually go back to Whateverthefuckville on Thursdays when he comes up? It’s Saturday, mi amor.”

“Yes. It’s Saturday. I’m dead. I’m just dead.” She marched into the bathroom, phone in hand. “Maybe there’s a guest preacher at his church,” she said, zipping up her dad’s toiletry bag.

“I want you now, Bambino,” her freshly minted fiancée said, sounding like something familiar. What was it? Oh, it was like the way her kitty, Scruggs, yawns – broiling on the bay window cushion, paws splayed. A fresh alarm bell rang: would the stress of the wedding stop Georgio and her from behaving like pets to each other? Please don’t make me human again, she thought.

“What are you wearing?” he cooed.

“Clothes – Dad’ll be back any second from his walk.”

“I hate clothes.”

“They say Hitler wore clothes.” She continued, “I’ll come over tonight, boo-boo, I swear. I’m kicking him out this afternoon. Somehow.” She laid her phone on the living room coffee table. “He’s like jury duty. He arrives without warning and – blam!” She slammed her father’s suitcase smack-dab in the middle of the sofa-bed. “There goes my week.” She unzipped it, threw in the bathroom kit, and dangled the suitcase off the side of the bed. She used the same trick when she wanted to get the hell out of a restaurant, see-sawing the check folder off the side of the table to let the waiter know she was the worst.

Switching from English to Italian, Georgio described his day, make-believing her into it: kissing her ghost in line at Peet’s, sleuthing out personal deets from their waiter crush at P. J. Clarke’s, furtive indiscretions in the Brooks Brothers fitting room. Now his voice was too soft for her to make out exactly what he was saying. (That muddy Florentine dialect. Hot, though.) Her mind wandered off to the tune of his voice. She plunged into the divan, fishing out her engagement ring from under her blouse.

It was chained to a necklace of sterling silver. And why not keep it secure, safe, secret? Her dumb luck confounded her. She felt like a breeze could waft it — him — away. And she’d be alone again, a dandelion’s stem, for the courtship was too easy – absent of pomp, of elbow grease. Her marriage proposal last month to Georgio on a diplomat’s friend’s neighbor’s wife’s yacht (“performed” entirely in Italian, ovviamente) was the first occasion that required some showmanship, but even that felt “organic,” her sister Lisa remarked. If happiness entered in stealth – could it evaporate just as easily? Youth is torture on the young, as lucky survivors of true love can attest. Or is the word unlucky? Whatever the case, keeping mum kept her sane: she rolled out her betrothal news to one new confidante a day. No more. One could say this act of hubris was her sacrifice to Cupid, whose dodgy track record speaks for itself.

A car door shut. Caroline sat up, stretched her collar, and dropped her ring back under her blouse. Outside, Pop strode across the lawn. She thought, What did Georgio just say on the phone?

“Sei ancora lì, tesoro?”

Oh, that’s “Are you still there, baby?” Oops.

With machine gun speed, Caroline said, “Yes, I’m here, but, sorry, I have to go, Bambino, he’s back! I’ll see you here at eight-o’clock tonight — not a moment sooner. Love you, ciao. Happy B – Bye.”

Great. Did she just give away the surprise birthday party? “Happy B – Bye.” Nope, but almost.

She hung up and looked at the clock: sedici e cinquantasette. Three hours left to decorate. Merda. How to get Daddy up and out? A curated group from the émigré nightspots, her days at Georgetown, and the Italian Embassy (work) were coming. Pop meeting Georgio was a no-go, fine della discussione. Although Italian-born, Georgio’s parents were from Istanbul. So that was not happening. Back in the day, around 9-11, Caroline overheard Daddy say to his organist at the church coffee hour that he was fine-as-you-please about Muslims, just as long as one didn’t marry his daughter, thank you very much. So, yeah, that was that.

Slam. “Hi, Sweet Pea!” Papa said, bounding in and plopping on the La-Z-Boy, as if daring it, just daring it to collapse. Her father, the Reverend Phineas Garrison, did nothing halfway. He had a fullback’s gregariousness. “I walked the entire Tidal Basin taking in those cherry blossoms.” His daily constitutional kept him proportional for an upper-middle-age, six-foot-three man.

“Wow, that’s a healthy jaunt, Daddy!” she said, ambling to the kitchen.

“It was stunning! We gotta go. What are you doing this very minute?” He hummed a four- note spring-song.

Caroline punched out her own tune on the microwave keypad. “We…I went two weeks ago on Easter,” she projected to him. “That was the peak – I checked bloom-watch-dot-com. You’re overdue.”

“Not for me.”

“You should have seen them then,” she said, hiding her tray of mushrooms in the oven. Oh, the door squeaked shut. Boo.

“But I’m telling you, I just saw them now, Baby Girl.”

The microwave pinged. She opened the door. “No, you didn’t. Your timing’s off. I mean at Easter, they were amaze-balls. Now, with the rain and the heat, half the leaves are smooshed.” She handed him his nuked coffee.

“Well, I’m here now, not then. It was beautiful, my dear, you can agree to at least give me that.” He set his mug on the piano.

“Why are you so content to just…take what comes to you?” she said, moving the mug to a coaster on the coffee table. He smelled of sweat and something else.

“Excuse me?” he said, his head cockeyed.

“I mean, you never plan. You just go wherever and whenever and that’s fine with you.” Caroline cracked open the front window. “Imagine what would happen if you planned out your life a day or, God forbid, a week in advance?” Crap. She took His name in vain. “Sorry, Papa.”

“Where is this coming from?”

“Dad, you keep missing things.” She snatched a tissue from the coffee table, wiping the window sill. “Last time you were here, we couldn’t get tickets to Billy Joel. You just arrived and announced we were going to see him, and you didn’t even check availability. You waste my time.”

He pressed on his thighs. “Young lady, it is called living in the moment,” he said, with a Steve Harvey-esque delivery.

Caroline threw out the tissue and eased herself down on the piano bench next to him. There they sat, Father and Daughter, in a driver-and-passenger configuration. “You know I love you, Papa. You know I do. But you can be — ” Good, she didn’t say it. Lazy. Or worse.

He re-tied his sneaker laces.

“Think of it this way,” she said, brokering: “Say in a few months, you come to visit. Let’s say you just show up the second week of September. Great. You’re here and we can go see a movie or some funky art installation at the Hirshhorn, fine. But how much trouble would it be to call me up a few weeks in advance?” She checked her tone. “It would take literally two seconds. And then we could talk and plan and do something special. I could get you here the first week of September for the H-Street festival.”

Okay. The seed was planted, and, quick, before he could discard it – “Remember when we met Aunt Bunny there?”

“Oh, sure, yeah.” Then it really did come to him. “Yes! I do remember that. Perfect weather.”

“Is that the time she—”

“Hit on that cop? Yaaaass!”

“Oh my lands, I forgot all about that,” he said, blossoming, “Man alive, she was frickin’ crazy!”

“Drunk off her rocker,” she said.

“Oh, yeah, she’s all, ‘Oh, officer? You-hoo! Can you show me the way to the White

House? Oh, is it that far? Are we in Maryland? I’m so confused!’”

Caroline joined in on the imitation: “‘Can you draw the directions on my hand? Oh, your fingers are so big, like hammers! Is that a real gun? Can I play with it?’”

“Lord help us, she had her kids with her,” he said.

Caroline got up to adjust the runner on the kitchen table but stopped herself short from looking like she was straightening up for a party. She turned around and said, “But there it is — that day — it didn’t just happen. We puh-lanned it. For months. You know?” Scruggs meandered around her legs in a figure eight of meows.

Father Phineus said, “Sit. Down.” The house reverberated.

“What?” Dammit. She got cheeky with him. Her mom, AKA the Master Handler, had been gone too long. She could still hear her whisper, casting a spell: Give him the soft sell, Baby. Speculate, wonder, surmise – make him believe that he thought of it himself, ‘cause for goodness sake, only Jesus Christ of Nazareth can tell that man what to do.

“Sit your ass down.”

“Yes, Sir,” slid out on its way to “Ok, Papa.” Caroline sat down at the head of the kitchen table. She scooped up and cradled Scruggs along her clavicle. His chin rested over her shoulder.

“Caroline, darling,” he said, “it’s…it’s different without…”

“I know.”

Father and daughter stared at the living room wall.

Two boys with changing voices passed by outside the window. They were talking about trainer sample sales.

Then her dad said, “Your mother and I used to do all that jazz, Caroline. We served on the boards, preached the funerals at the National Cathedral and whatnot. Events! Be here on this date! Don’t miss it! We were so busy together in the beltway rat race that we were barely together together. Baby, our Lord Jesus was not put here on earth to do press releases for the Gardens of Babylon.”

“Can you honestly say that Jesus didn’t like attention?” She percussed with her foot, and

Scruggs bolted. “He mass-produced fish. He was a frickin’ David Copperfield.”

“No, no, no, no, no. Listen. A good teacher, like a good politician, is at the center of a crowd because he is needed. People were hungry. A teacher is at the wrong place with the right people. An egoist is at the right place with the wrong people. ‘But seek first e kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.’ FOML.”

“It’s FOMO, Daddy.”

“FOML. Fear Of Missing the Lord,” he said. (He was proud of that one. He had coined it over dinner at a youth retreat last summer at Cape May.)

“Jesus Christ, Dad,” she said, catching herself again. “Sorry. Actually, that is kind of funny.”

“You’ve got to listen to me, honey.” He swallowed. “One day you’ll look at what you have left after you live your life just to please others. You have got to take it easy, or you’ll miss your life whizzing by.”

She thought about Georgio’s surprise party. The lack of sleep. And yesterday. The three- o’clock with the Hungarian dignitary ran long because, near the end of the hour, her translation of the agreed terms was just inaccurate enough to stall the negotiation just when things should have been wrapping up. Georgio didn’t let on, the doll, but he twirled his wrist-watch like he did when the I-66 piled up. Dad wasn’t entirely wrong; keeping the fun going was taking the fun out of it. “Message received,” she said.

“Good.” He put his feet up. “Caroline, Caroline, Caroline. I don’t want to see a maple tree blaze red in mid-October. I don’t need the last ticket to…what’s his name? Curly hair, wibble- wobble?”

“Josh G–“

“Josh Groban,” he said as if he remembered it himself. Then, in his the-sermon-is- winding-down-so-listen-carefully voice: “I want to see what nobody needs me to see. A park with muddy grass, snow that don’t stick. I want to see things the way they are: sloppy, scrappy, transitional. I ache for the in-betweens.” His green eyes glistened.

Papa, too? Caroline thought. Dang. Since her engagement, something in her aura magnetized lonely people to her: even him? Well, God was in heaven, Mom under the ground. Her Disney Princesses never told her that dream-come-true love, a jubilee, came with it a caveat— a kind of mourning for the rationed happiness of her past life and, judging by her dad’s tone, her probable future. She looked at her not-so-subtle hint — his suitcase dangling off the sofa- bed. Honor thy father and mother. Bad girl.

He looked at her looking at his suitcase. “Do you want to tell me what’s going on with you, Sugar?” he said, which he never said, Mom always said it.

Her phone on the coffee table vibrated to life. It sang, “There’s a fire starting in my heart, reaching a fever pitch…” Georgio’s lips lit up the display.

They had her.

“Daddy, I need your permission to marry outside the faith.”

***

Brandon Adams was born in Texas and lives in NYC. He is an award-winning music director and an emerging writer. His first story was published this year in Chaleur magazine. He has taught writing and music at American University, San Francisco State University, and the Urban School of San Francisco. He has worked at Z-Space, 42nd Street Moon, and the Three Girls’ Theatre in presenting new and rediscovered musical theatre works in San Francisco. He is a graduate of Dartmouth College.