For as long as Diego could remember, he had been a night owl. There was nothing he loved more than being awake at three in the morning while the rest of the world was sound asleep. In high school and college weekends meant he could stay awake until the wee hours of the morning, doing whatever he pleased. It was a large part of the reason he had decided to become a freelance graphic designer after graduation from The Art Institute. He could make his own hours, not have to punch a clock and be left alone.
What Diego loved most though about being awake while everyone else slept was the quiet. Even living in a major city like Philadelphia, where things were always happening, there was a point where the city would quiet down and a sense of calm would envelop everything. It was the moment Diego lived for and he looked forward to it every night.
In the suburbs where his mother lived however, the quiet took on a whole new level. You could stand in the middle of the street and not see anyone. You could walk around and know for certain you were the only one enjoying the solitude and peacefulness. Diego kind of felt sorry for everyone else that they missed it.
Diego slowly stirred under the heavy quilt. Sitting up in bed and rubbing his eyes, it took him a moment to realize where he was and why. It had become something of a habit over the last few years, with all the traveling and moving around he had done. After a few seconds he remembered and a wave of sorrow and anger washed over him, remembering the fight with his mom and that his father was dead.
He sat on the edge of the bed, realizing that there was no way he was going to be able to go back to sleep. He grabbed his phone and saw that it was 4:25 in the morning, which meant he had been sleeping for over ten hours. The sun wasn’t up yet and his mother and sister must still be asleep.
Diego pulled on his shoes, grabbed a pack of cigarettes and a lighter out of his backpack and slowly made his was downstairs, trying his best to be as quiet as possible.
He walked through the living room and kitchen and went out the large glass sliding doors that led to the massive wooden deck in the backyard. It had come with the house when his parents bought it and other then refinishing and re-staining it years ago, the deck was pretty much the same as the day they had moved in.
As he carefully closed the door behind him, the scent of the pine tress hit him, the impossibly tall ones that lined the edge of the property. There was a hint of frost on the grass of the yard that would burn off as soon as the sun rose in an hour of so.
Diego had loved this backyard growing up. He and his friends would have sleepovers, cook using the fire pit and then set up tents to sleep in, though they did very little sleeping. They would wait until they were sure everyone was asleep and then head out to explore. It usually just involved a trek to the local Wawa to buy soda and candy, but for a 12-year-old boy and his friends, it was a grand adventure.
Diego sat on the wooden steps that led down from the main deck to the yard and lit a cigarette. He inhaled deeply, letting the smoke fill his lungs and then exhaled, the smoke forming a cloud in front of him. He could already feel himself calming down just a bit as he closed his eyes and enjoyed the silence of the early morning.
Lost in his own thoughts, he didn’t hear the sliding door open or the footsteps of someone approaching from behind.
“When did you start smoking again?”
Diego jumped and whirled around, scared out of his wits. He let out an exasperated breath when he saw it was just his mother standing there, bathrobe tied around her waist and slippers on her feet.
“Jesus Christ Mom. You just scared the crap out of me.”
Judy smiled a mischievous grin, the same one she would get when she would sneak up and scare her children when they were younger. “I’m sorry Darren. I heard the sliding glass door open and just wanted to check to make sure everything was okay.”
“Why aren’t you asleep?”
“Since your father died, I’ve found I haven’t been sleeping all that much. I was actually on the living room couch when I heard you go outside. I …” she hesitated. “I can’t bring myself to sleep in our bedroom. At least not yet.”
Diego looked at the ground, trying his best to understand what she was going through. “That’s perfectly normal Mom. It may take a while until you can sleep in your room again.”
Judy sighed. “Sometimes I don’t think anything is going to be normal ever again. And don’t change the subject. When did you start with the cigarettes again?”
Diego had been a heavy smoker all through high school and his first year at college. It was a habit his mother despised and had spent a considerable amount of time informing Diego of that fact. However, since his father was also a smoker who had never been able to completely quit the habit, most of Judy’s arguments fell on deaf ears.
Diego had finally quit cold turkey after his first year at the Art Institute. Having to run outside to grab a smoke all the time as well as the fact the habit was getting more and more expensive had convinced him the time was right.
He looked down at the lit cigarette in his hand, trying to remember when he had picked it up again. “Maybe a year ago or so? I was with some friends in Reno and everyone was smoking and drinking and I guess I figured what the hell, why not. I only smoke like three a day or so. Nothing like I used to.”
Judy looked at her son disapprovingly. It was a look Diego was very familiar with and he was fully expecting a lecture about how they would end up killing him someday.
Instead, Judy simply looked away, her gaze falling on the line of pines that represented the edge of the property.
“How did it feel Darren?”
“How did what feel?”
“Moving around all the time. Not knowing from one day to the next where you were going to be or what you were going to do. How did that … freedom feel?”
The question took Diego aback. His mother had never wanted to talk about his traveling in any of the brief phone conversations that they had had over the years. He would try to share some amazing experience with her and she would change the subject, just wanting to know if he was coming home any time soon.
It was usually Edward who would ask for details, would want to know everything Diego was feeling and experiencing at the time. He sometimes felt like his father was living through him, enjoying an adventure through his son that he always wanted but could never have.
“It felt incredible Mom. I learned so much about myself and the world. Sure, there was times when I was wasn’t sure about what was going to happen and that was scary. And it wasn’t always fun, there were times when all I could think about was why the hell I had decided to do this. But I wouldn’t give up the last four years for anything.”
“So it was worth what it cost you?”
Diego wasn’t sure what his mother was getting at. “What do you mean?”
Judy finally looked at her son, a hint of ire in her features. “You know exactly what I mean. Upsetting your sister and I. Deserting your friends. Leaving your clients in a lurch. Knowing that if you left, there were likely going to be repercussions that might leave scars that would never heal. Was it all worth it?”
Diego took a drag off the cigarette in his hand and exhaled, trying to gather his thoughts before he spoke.
“Liz and I were talking about this very thing this afternoon. I’m well aware that what I did hurt a lot of people, hurt you most of all. I knew that was going to happen when I was planning it and I didn’t really care. I’m sorry if that hurts you but it’s the truth. For me, at that time, it was the right decision.
“So yes. To answer your question it was worth it. If that sounds selfish or upsets you, I guess I’ll have to live with that. The same way I’ll have to live with not being able to say goodbye to Dad and thank him for what he did.”
This was the second time in as many days Diego had had to defend himself and his decision and he had a funny feeling it wasn’t going to be the last.
He walked over to the wash basin that stood off to the side of sliding glass doors and put out his cigarette. For years his father had simply kept an old metal coffee can on the deck, using it as an ashtray since he was forbidden from smoking in the house. One day Judy decided that she was sick of all the “trash” on her deck and bought the wash basin at a flea market, filled it with sand and instructed everyone who smoked to use that to dispose of their cigarettes.
“Why did you tell your father?”
“Because I needed to tell someone and for some reason I can’t explain I knew Dad would understand. He wouldn’t necessarily like it, but some part of me knew he would get it and wouldn’t stop me. Dad always treated me like an adult who could make his own decisions.”
“And I don’t?”
“It not that you couldn’t, but that you wouldn’t.”
Judy tightly folded her arms and walked down the wooden steps into the grass. The first indications of sunlight were just starting to brighten the night sky as Diego followed his mother into the yard.
“Look Mom. I don’t know what you want me to say. If you want me to leave, fine. If you want me to feel guilty about all this, that’s fine too because I do. But if you’re looking for some kind of apology, that’s not going to happen. I don’t think I have anything to be sorry for. It’s my life and I simply decided to stop living it by committee. Dad understood that. Why can’t you?”
Judy turned around and looked at her son. “Because I’m your mother. It’s my job to worry about you, take care of you and ensure sure you make the right decisions. That never ends no matter how old you may be. You don’t have to listen to me, but that isn’t going to stop me from giving you my opinion.
“And the reason your father understood and let you leave without saying a word to anyone is because you and he are so much alike it’s infuriating. He wanted to go on big adventures, live life one moment to the next never thinking ahead. It was all he talked about while we were dating. But he gave all that up when I got pregnant with Elizabeth. I always thought a part of him resented me for that and not saying anything about you and your trip was his way of getting back at me.”
“Mom, I’m sure that wasn’t the case. He tried to convince me to say something to you but when he saw I wouldn’t do it he gave up.”
Judy bent her head down, her eyes closed. “I know, I know. You father was many things but spiteful wasn’t one of them. Much like you.”
Abruptly she turned and headed toward the house, asking her son to wait for her to return. While he waited Diego saw the sun was rising and could hear the world slowly waking up, another day about to begin.
Five minutes later Judy returned and placed something in Diego’s hand. “Your father would have wanted you to have this. I wanted to give it to you now before I forget or it gets lost in the all the craziness of the next few days.”
Diego looked down at his hand and saw it was a silver Zippo lighter. It was well worn, obviously older than he was and had the faintest smell of lighter fluid. He then turned it over and saw that it was engraved with the words “Wish You Were Here.”
Diego knew the lighter very well. His father had carried it with him wherever he went and would flip the lid open and closed repeatedly if he was nervous or waiting for something or someone. That sound was one of the earliest things Diego remembered about his childhood. Every once in a great while Edward would let his son hold it when his hands were full or as a reward if he had done something well. Diego would just look at the shiny silver metal and think how incredibly cool it was.
If Diego was being honest, that lighter was a big part of the reason he had started smoking in the first place. So he could be more like his Dad.
“Mom … this is Dad’s Zippo. I can’t take this.”
“What else am I going to do with it? I don’t smoke and have no plans to start. If I don’t give it to you it will just end up in a drawer and get lost. And that damn thing meant so much to your father I don’t want to see that happen.
“That and, like I said. He would have wanted you to have it.”
Diego opened and closed the Zippo a few times and was suddenly overcome with the knowledge that he would never see his Dad use the lighter again. He started to sob uncontrollably, the tears streaming down his face. He balled up his hands into fists and pressed them against his forehead, trying to will the tears to stop so he could catch his breath, to no avail.
He fell to his knees in the wet grass, sobbing and shaking. At some point he felt his mother wrap her arms around him, telling him it was going to be okay between sobs of her own. He wasn’t sure how long the two of them were like that, but by the time Diego had regained some kind of composure the sun was almost up and the last of the stars were disappearing into the dawn sky.
“It’s so hard to believe I’m never going to see Dad again.”
Judy wiped the tears from Diego’s face with her thumb, holding his chin with her other hand. “Your father will always be with you. No, you won’t be able to see him, but if you talk to him I’m sure he’ll be listening.”
The two of them got up and brushed the dirt from their knees, walking slowly back to the deck as they did. Once there, Judy went to the sliding door and stopped before she opened it.
“I apologize for what I said earlier Darren. I’m still trying to deal with all this and I think I let myself take some of that out on you. I shouldn’t have. And for that I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay Mom. I understand.”
Judy nodded as she opened the sliding door. She was halfway through when she stopped and turned around to look at Diego. “Do you have something to wear to the viewing tomorrow and the funeral on Friday?”
Diego thought about it and quickly realized he didn’t. Nothing he brought with him was appropriate and all the clothes he left here four years ago no doubt no longer fit.
“Um, no. As a matter of fact I don’t. I’ll have to go out today and buy some. Is that thrift store still off Moreland Road in town?”
Judy straightened her shoulders and glared at her son. “You are not going to buy clothing for your father’s funeral at a godforsaken thrift shop. I won’t have it. You will take my Macy’s card, go to the mall and buy new clothes that haven’t been worn before by who knows what. Is that understood?”
Diego laughed to himself. According to his mother, if someone else wore you clothes before you, they weren’t really yours. No, it didn’t make a lot of sense, but this wasn’t the time to have that argument.
“Fine Mom. I’ll head to the mall later today and buy something nice.”
“Good. Now come inside and I’ll make some breakfast.”
Diego followed his mother into the house, unconsciously opening and closing the Zippo as he did.
Later that day Diego looked up the Septa schedule on his phone to see when he could catch a bus. The Willow Grove Mall was only a few miles away and the buses went up and down York Road all day long. He only had to wait a few minutes before one came and he was on his way.
Once there, armed with his mother’s credit card, he found a couple of dress shirts, one grey and one black, along with a pair of black Dockers and a black tie. It then dawned on him that not only did he need clothes for the funeral but he also needed shoes. The only pair he owned was on his feet and he doubted his Mom would want to see him wear his beaten up hiking boots to the church.
Once he had his new outfit, Diego went across the street and got a quick haircut. It was less about his hair and more to do with his beard, which had grown out of control the last few years. He figured his mother would appreciate the extra effort and Diego wanted to look his best when he said goodbye to his father.