Diego woke the next morning to find that his head was throbbing and his mouth felt like someone had filled it with sandpaper. He didn’t think he had drank that much at Harrigan’s the night before so the hangover that was attacking his brain came as a surprise.
He grabbed his phone off the nightstand to see that it was already after nine in the morning. From the sounds coming from downstairs it seemed like everyone was getting ready to head to Edward’s funeral mass at the church. Deciding he really didn’t feel like dealing with any of that right now, Diego laid back down in his bed and pulled the quilt over his head.
His reprieve was short lived as a few minutes later her heard someone knocking at his bedroom door. Without emerging from the warmth of the quilt, he simply said “Yes?”
Diego heard the door open and his mother’s voice from the doorway. “We’re getting ready to leave. Are you sure you don’t want to join us?”
“No Mom. I’m good. I said my goodbyes to Dad yesterday. I really don’t think I can do that all over again.”
“Okay. But you will be at the luncheon at Bernie’s this afternoon, correct?”
“Yep. You said it’s at eleven-thirty, right?”
“Yes. And wear something nice. Most of the family hasn’t seen you in years. I don’t want them thinking you’re some kind of hobo or something.”
Diego threw the covers off of his head. “Hobo? Seriously?”
“Just be presentable. We’ll see you there.”
“Yes Mom.” Diego said and then burrowed himself back under the quilt.
Unfortunately going back to sleep quickly proved impossible. After twenty minutes of starring at the ceiling Diego dragged himself out of bed and figured he might as well get his day started. One long hot shower, a cheese omelet and two aspirin later Diego almost felt human again.
He headed back upstairs to find the other set of clothes he had purchased earlier in the week. The ones for the luncheon his mother insisted he go to despite Diego not really having any desire to have to deal with his extended family.
It wasn’t that he didn’t like them or had any specific issue with any of them. It was simply that Diego didn’t feel like he really knew any of them anymore and that none of them had a clue about him. It would make for hours of awkward conversations and having to tiptoe around the reason he had disappeared four years ago. Which, thanks to his Aunt Donna telling anyone who would listen, had become quite the family scandal. It was inevitable that it would come up over and over again.
Thankfully, the real reason he had vanished was only known to a small handful of people. His parents, Liz, possibly Eric as well as Trevor and Nikki.
And of course Roxanne.
Just the thought of her name made Diego’s breathing become more rapid and an ache to suddenly manifest itself in his stomach. Ever since their breakup he hadn’t been able to even think about her without feeling overwhelmed with guilt and a sense of loss. Even after five years it still hurt just as much as it did the day she had told him she never wanted to see him again. He could swear sometimes he still felt the sting on his cheek from where she had slapped him.
Diego’s eyes wandered over to the stack of boxes on top of his desk and fixed on the one labeled “Roxanne.” He knew this was a bad idea, that he was going through enough right now and that he didn’t need to reopen these old wounds. However, that didn’t stop him from walking over, picking it up and placing the box on his bed.
He carefully opened it and the first thing that hit him was the faint scent of her favorite perfume. He closed his eyes for a moment and let the smell of honeysuckle wash over him, memories coming unbidden into his mind. That smell was the first thing Diego noticed about her when they met all those years ago. How it seemed to permeate everything he owned after they had been dating a few months. How much it hurt the first time he smelled it after they had split up.
He opened his eyes and looked down into the box. There wasn’t really much in it, but it dawned on Diego that what was there meant more to him than he remembered.
There was the napkin that Roxanne had written her phone number on the night they met. She was working at a big chain bookstore at the time and had grabbed the napkin from the cafe when Diego asked for her number. There was the lanyard from the first anime convention they had gone to together in Philadelphia. An umbrella they had huddled underneath and kissed when they were caught in a storm while on South Street. A handful of Valentine’s Day and birthday cards as well as a copy of Love, Actually, their favorite movie to watch together.
The last item Diego removed was a small blue ring box. He had completely forgotten it was even in there until he had seen in, hiding underneath a handful of papers. He opened it and saw that the ring was still there, the small diamond gleaming as it caught the sunlight coming in through the window. He had bought it shortly after the fourth anniversary of their first date. Diego had had no plans to propose right away but had seen the ring and knew it was perfect for Roxanne. He knew he was going ask her to marry him someday so it had made perfect sense to him to buy the ring and put it someplace safe.
A little over a year later it would all be over.
Diego sat on the edge of the bed and looked down at the ring. The same questions he had been asking himself for the past five years ran through his mind once again. Why had he done it? Why had he cheated on Roxanne? And not just some random one-night stand but for months. For months he had carried on with another woman despite being in love with Roxanne. It just didn’t make any sense.
He didn’t have an answer while it was happening and he couldn’t answer Roxanne when she asked him the night it all came out and she broke it off. Diego could still see the look on her face when he couldn’t give her a reason for why he had done it. The hurt and anger and disappointment making him feel so small and worthless.
He knew not being able to answer those questions is a huge part of why he wanted to just disappear. To start over again and not have to confront what he had done. Sure, it was a coward’s way out but Diego had never professed to be the courageous type. So that’s exactly what he did six months after they broke up.
The only problem was that is didn’t work out they way Diego wanted. The questions and feelings followed him no matter where he went. He could put it on the back burner for a while and focus on other things, but it was always there, not far from the front of his mind. He found he was unable to have any kind of relationship, that as soon as things started to get serious he would pack his things and be on the first bus out of town, afraid that he would screw things up again.
Diego suddenly realized running away wasn’t going to work. That even if he left again and went to Vegas the emotional wreckage of his relationship with Roxanne would follow him.
Diego knew what he had to do. He had to fix this. Somehow, someway, he had to fix this.
He had to fix himself.
Diego quickly got dressed and ordered an Uber to go to the luncheon. He had to talk to his mother and it couldn’t wait.
Bernie’s Restaurant and Bar, located in the middle of Hatboro’s downtown, had only been open a few years but had already become a favorite of the locals and folks who were looking for a more upscale place to have a drink. Diego’s mother loved the place and had eaten there with Edward numerous times since it opened in the spring of 2017.
Diego got there about ten minutes before the luncheon was supposed to begin. The hostess, a young Black girl who offered her condolences for his loss, showed him to the large room that Judy had reserved for the luncheon. All the tables were perfectly set and each had a centerpiece of flowers that also included a picture of his father. The large windows to the street allowed the sun to shine in and filled the room with a nice sense of warmth.
Diego sat but didn’t have to wait long for people to start to arrive. Within minutes family members he hadn’t seen in years walked into the large room and were invariably surprised to see him. He was greeted with enthusiastic hugs and handshakes as he did his best to try and remember who was who.
All the while he kept an eye out for his mother. After what felt like an eternity Judy finally walked into the room flanked by Liz and Eric with their boys each holding one of their grandmother’s hands. As she began to make her way around the room she noticed Diego and gave him a small smile as she mouthed the words “Thank you.”
It had been forever since this much of Diego’s family was in the same room together so it was a good half hour before anyone began to sit and the wait staff could start bringing food and drinks out. Even as that was going on the conversations continued, with aunts, uncles, cousins, nephews and assorted spouses all talking over one another, trying to catch up on the latest family drama. Which, for most of them, was Diego.
It seemed to Diego that every person in the room was bound and determined to ask him what he had been doing for the past few years and why he had vanished like he did. The first question was easy enough to answer and he quickly discovered that “I needed to find myself.” was a satisfactory response to the second question that avoided having to go into any real detail.
Diego made his way to his table, which included all of his family as well as his father’s sister Carol and her husband Robert. Their two children sat with the rest of the cousins and nephews at a separate table that was proving to be the noisiest in the room.
Once the main course was served, which was either a chicken marsala or salmon vera cruz, and everyone started to eat, Diego leaned over to his mother. He said “I need to talk to you. Can we go outside for a few minutes?” Judy gave him a concerned look and said “Right this minute?” Diego nodded his head yes and she wiped her mouth with her napkin and got up, telling Liz she would be back as soon as she could.
The two made their way to the large bar that took up most of the main area of the restaurant. At this time of the day there were only a few people there, drinking and watching sports on the many televisions that hung above the bar. Once there Judy ordered a Manhattan and asked if Diego wanted anything.
“A Manhattan? This early on a Friday?”
“I just said goodbye to my husband of almost 40 years Darren. Allow me this one indulgence.” Judy replied tensely.
Diego looked down at the bar. “No problem Mom. Sorry.”
Judy sighed. “No, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to snap at you. It’s just been a difficult week and if I could I would have a drink in my hand from the moment I wake up until I put my head on my pillow at night.”
“It’s fine Mom. Difficult doesn’t begin to explain what this week has been like.”
Once Judy had her Manhattan and Diego a Coors Light, Judy raised her glass and said “To your father.”
The two drank, Judy finishing half her drink in one gulp. She ordered another and looked at her son. “So Darren. What did you want to talk about that couldn’t wait until we finished lunch?”
Diego took another drink from his beer. “I wanted to know if you would mind if I stuck around for a while. Lived at home.”
Judy looked at her son, his face full of questions. “I would have thought you would want to get back on the road as soon as possible. Your sister said something about Las Vegas and living in a van?”
Diego couldn’t help but laugh. Of course Liz would say something to their mother about his original van life plans. Why wouldn’t she?
“Yeah, well that was before Dad died. Before I came home and had to confront a lot of the reasons I left in the first place and how I still don’t quite understand how it got to that point.”
“It got to that point Darren because you had an affair and hurt your girlfriend. Then she told you she didn’t want to see you ever again. That should be obvious even to you.”
“Yeah but why did I do it Mom? Why did I hurt Roxanne? I still don’t have a good answer for that and before I move on with my life I need to figure it out. And the best place to do that is here. At home.
“I don’t regret leaving. Not a bit. The last four years opened my eyes to a lot of things. It showed me a much bigger world and that there are a lot of different people in it. But it also showed me that running away from your problems won’t make them magically disappear. You need to confront them head on. So before I move to Vegas or Alaska or anywhere else, I need to find answers. And I wanted to know if you had a problem with me living at home for a bit while I try to find them.
“Maybe Dad dying was his way of telling me to finally get my shit together. So that I could realize that I need to fix myself before I can move on. And he brought me home so I can do just that.”
Judy took a sip from her drink, starring out the window at the traffic speeding by the restaurant. She didn’t speak for a few minutes and Diego was afraid that she was going to say no.
Without looking at her son, Judy said “If you’re going to be living at home again, there are going to be a few conditions. You are going to get a job of some kind and pay rent. I don’t run a rooming house for vagrants.”
“Second,” she said, ignoring him. “I do not want you bringing any overnight guests to the house. I won’t have you doing … that under my roof.”
“Okay. And eww.”
“And finally, you and I will sit and have dinner together every Sunday. No exceptions.”
Judy looked at Diego. “I know what you and Elizabeth think of me. I’m not stupid. Your father was the fun and carefree parent while I was the disciplinarian. The cold, heartless killjoy that you and your sister were afraid to open up to and share your lives with because you were scared of being judged. That always hurt but I understood. It was how I was raised and I figured as long as your father was there, it would be all right.
“But your father is gone now. And I’ll be damned if I’m going to watch you disappear again and not tell me. Not feel like you can come to me and talk about what’s going on and what you’re feeling. So you and I will have dinner once a week and talk. And who knows. Maybe I can help you with some of those questions you need answers to.”
Diego took a drink. “Okay, but I get to move into the basement. If you and I are going to be opening up to each other,” Diego paused and rolled his eyes, “then I’m going to need some kind of privacy.”
Judy smiled. “Fine.”
They both looked down at the bar. Diego grabbed his mother’s hand and gave it a gentle squeeze. “Thanks Mom.” he said quietly.
“You’re most welcome.”
As if on cue, Liz came walking up to the bar, an exasperated look on her face. “What the hell are you two doing? Everyone is asking where you are and Aunt Donna is already half drunk. She wants to start doing karaoke.”
“Did you explain to my sister that they don’t do karaoke here?”
Liz threw her hands in the air. “Yes! She said she’d just use her phone for the music.”
“Oh dear. I guess we’d better get back.”
As Judy walked back toward the luncheon, Liz grabbed her brother’s arm and held him back for a second. “What was that all about?”
“I’m going to be sticking around for a bit. Moving back home while I try to figure some things out.”
“And that couldn’t wait until later?”
“You sound just like Mom.”
“Take that back you son of a bitch!”