The Way Things Went
It isn't the place, it's the sentiment that counts; that's what Laura had said.
She had bitten down a little on that word - sentiment - like the false flag for feeling that it was. But he’d appreciated it anyway. It was vaguely comforting to think that this encounter might have some emotional substance.
Still, the location wasn't easy on the senses. A dilapidated Chinatown restaurant in the old-fashioned way, all gaudy yellow signage and fiercely red chickens. The greeting was perfunctory; the heat inside an unwelcome blast of generic sweet-and-sour. They were handed sticky plastic menus. An unlikely place for an epiphany.
"Just try to relax," said Laura. "He's the one who asked for this. You don't have to do anything or say anything you don't want to."
"I know, I know." I fidgeted with a serviette and the waiter brought beer. The place was loud, too: a dozen conversations competed with the rattle of an old air-conditioner next to the bar. The next table was uncomfortably close, a tattooed woman and a hipster guy with a distressingly oily beard.
And then he was there, pushing past the staff and straight through to us with a grin the size of a dinner plate. I just had time to take in the sheer size of him - always an ogre of a man, he now had the muscles to match, displayed in a t-shirt with high-cut sleeves - before he swallowed me in a choking embrace.
“Trev, my old mate Trev!” he gushed.
We ordered Menu C without fanfare. After that, I think I’d expected ritual. I’d thought that after six years, some formal restart button might need to be pressed before we could tackle families, children et al with the proper degree of wistful introspection. Instead it all came at once - his jobs, his ambitions, me, the reasons it had all fallen apart, how he wished it could have happened differently but that was just the way things went sometimes.
And then I asked whether he had seen Mum before she died, and he stopped dead.
“Oh, Trevor. You know. I mean, you know.”
He sat like that for a long time, rapping his knuckles together. He seemed distracted, irritated by the couple on the next table.
“Can we talk about this later?” he said.
“It was just a question.”
In the gap that followed, the hipster guy threw back his head, laughed and said something.
Dad turned. “What did you say?”
“Nothing, mate,” the guy said. “Nothing to you. We were just chatting.”
I felt my whole body tense, the way it used to; the way I remember it doing so many times in that damned house when the plates were dirty or the food overcooked, or when nothing at all was happening and we just wanted out.
“I heard you,” Dad said. “I know what you were talking about.”
I pulled Laura’s sleeve: time to go. She whispered that I should say something, don’t let it end like this. But the air was too cloying and the noise unbearable, and I knew I had to get out, and that once I did, I couldn’t return.