I sat at my kitchen table, still in awe over the letters I received. I was going to Tennessee! The reality of being accepted to my dream school hadn’t quite sunk in. I told Pam my news when she got home from play practice, and she accepted it with her usual nonchalance. I knew, as the time got closer for me to leave, her emotions would creep closer to the surface.
I was still puzzled over Sookie’s reaction. I knew her well enough by that point to tell that her enthusiasm was forced. I had no idea why she couldn’t really be happy for me, but her smiles didn’t reach her eyes. Even her kisses felt held back. I didn’t know why, but it really pissed me off.
Still stewing in my frustration, I heard the front door open and close. Mom never got home early when she worked in the ER. I was confused – who would just walk in without knocking? That alone was proof that it had been a long time since I’d seen my dad.
Both Pam and I got our blond hair and blue eyes from Bryan Michael Northman, but I also received his height in the genetic mix. I was a thirty-year younger, one inch taller clone of my dad. The resemblances meant little-to-nothing to me – he made the choice to mentally and physically check-out of family life by the time both Pam and I were in grade school.
Dad treated us like trophies meant to be shown off when it benefited him. As if playing a part on a championship-winning football and basketball teams or putting in the work for multiple stage performances were his accomplishments rather than ours. He only cared about what we did when it reflected on him and his last name.
Mom, on the other hand, worked her ass off at the hospital and loved her job as a nurse with a passion. Pam and I hardly saw her unless she got a rare day shift. My personal feeling was she actually preferred the evening and overnight shifts. They kept her from having to spend nights alone in our big empty house and from having to deal with her kids. It was a small miracle that Pam and I survived for as long as we had – we’d been raising ourselves from the time we were tall enough to reach the microwave to nuke our dinner and old enough to remember to lock the door behind us when we got home from school.
So it was a shock to see my dad’s large frame enter the kitchen from the living room a few minutes later. He had a huge, indulgent smile on his face. “Pam told me your news. Tennessee and Alabama! I’m so proud of you!” he exclaimed, clapping his hands on my shoulders from behind me.
As much as I hated to admit it, as much as I didn’t want to care what he thought, hearing him tell me that I’d made him proud made my spine straighten with a rare feeling of self-worth. I knew that part of me would always strive for his approval and I hated that fact. He moved from behind me to sit in the chair next to mine and held his hand out, silently demanding the acceptance letters for his perusal.
After reading, he met my eyes. “Pam also says that you have your heart set on going to Knoxville. I think basing your college choice solely on your favorite football team is irresponsible. You need to take the time to visit the campuses and see if the school is a place where you can see yourself off the playing field,” he lectured in his deep voice, commanding respect from word one.
He was right. I knew nothing about Knoxville or Tennessee except for its general area in the country and what the football team was like. I knew roughly the same about Alabama and Tuscaloosa. It wouldn’t be a horrible idea to visit the campuses before making what could be the biggest decision of my life, the one that my future would be based on. Dad grinned at my expression and continued. “Who else has scouted you?”
I thought about various reps that I had met throughout the season in the fall. “Virginia Tech and UNC, definitely. I think I remember University of Georgia or South Carolina being in the mix somewhere. They all kind of blurred together by the end of the season.” Even if the man was a hard ass, on and off the field, Coach Quinn did his best to get his players noticed when it mattered.
Dad stood up and brushed some imaginary dirt off his hands on his pants. “I have an idea. Go pack a bag for a few nights. We’ll leave first thing tomorrow morning and check out schools until Sunday. We’re going to finally spend some time together before you leave me alone with just the women,” he added with a chuckle. Like his ass would ever be home. “There isn’t anything you’ll be missing anyway; your senior year is almost done. A few days isn’t going to keep you from graduating. Don’t you guys get some days to tour campuses anyway?”
Yes, our school excused up to five days for seniors who took time off to visit colleges. Most kids took the trips in the fall before applying. It wouldn’t hurt to have a few days off from school to consider my options. I was morbidly curious as to what six days in a car/hotel/tour group with my dad would be like. It would be the most time he and I ever spent alone together.
But most of all, I was excited. I was getting out of this tiny town and exploring greener pastures. I always knew I would, one way or another. I packed a duffle bag with jeans, t-shirts, shorts, underwear, socks and shoes before getting some of my toiletries from the bathroom. I could hear Dad rustling around in his and Mom’s room doing the same. I went out and told Pam what was going on so she could let Mom know, if Dad wasn’t able to get hold of her in the ER.
I forced myself to sleep, since we would be leaving early. I was so excited about the trip that I didn’t even think once about the fact that I was supposed to pick up Sookie for school the next morning. Sleep came easily, once I was able to clear my mind, but it was restless. When I woke up before my alarm, I couldn’t remember much of the dream that had me tossing and turning. Flashes of long, wavy blond hair rolling around in a field by the water with a dark haired guy haunted me. I was pretty sure what my subconscious was trying to tell me, but I was going to ignore it. I didn’t want to think about that before I left for six days.
After showering and gathering the rest of my bathroom stuff to pack, I dressed comfortably and grabbed my duffel to meet Dad in the kitchen. He greeted me with a grin as he filled his travel mug with coffee and tossed me a bottle of orange juice from the fridge. He instructed me to throw my bag in the trunk of his Jag, or as I called the overrated convertible – the Midlife-crisis-mobile. I nodded my understanding and did as he said. It wasn’t like the car was uncomfortable, just ostentatious.
He joined me with his own bag a few minutes later and soon after, we were on the road. While we headed for the interstate, he caught me up to speed on his plans. His, because he was the one in charge of my future, right? “I thought we’d make a circle. Six days to visit six campuses. We’ll start at Virginia Tech since that’s closest. Tonight or early tomorrow, we’ll make our way to Knoxville, then Tuscaloosa, Athens, Columbia, and finish up on Sunday at Chapel Hill. I made some calls last night after our talk and got in touch with someone in the admissions department in Blacksburg. They’ll have someone to take us on a tour when we get there.”
I tried to be accepting of the way he was railroading and taking charge of everything. I just held my tongue and stayed silent, the way he preferred his children. He continued to talk about the benefits of different colleges (as he saw them), never once asking what I wanted.
Between home and Virginia Tech I attempted to get a text or a voice mail to Sookie to let her know what was going on, but the signal on the interstate going over and around mountains was spotty and they never went through. I hoped like hell she hadn’t waited for me to pick her up. Feeling irresponsible, I hoped she’d forgive me.
Dad smirked at my preoccupation with my phone and cocked an eyebrow at the wallpaper of Sookie in her dance uniform. “You still seeing that little cheerleader?” he asked me with amusement in his voice.
“She’s a dancer and yes, I am,” I replied shortly. He’d met her a grand total of once and I would bet my car that he couldn’t remember her name.
“Not like you to settle down. How does she feel about you leaving? Or is she heading off somewhere too?”
Why was he so damn interested in my personal life now?
“She’s an amazing girl. She’s known for a while that I would be leaving while she finished up high school.” I figured that was enough to answer what he’d asked. Thinking about it, I never really asked what she thought about it. I hadn’t given any consideration to how she felt about my being gone for a year before she graduated. I also was clueless as to what her plans were for college. Realizing I had taken a lot for granted, I wanted to kick myself for not thinking about it before then.
Wallowing in my thoughtlessness left me thoroughly miserable as Dad pulled into a visitor parking spot in front of Burruss Hall. A very perky, attractive co-ed met us in the admissions office. She introduced herself as Selah and shook my dad’s hand, then mine. She handed us maps of the campus and some folders with general information about the university.
Selah led us to a golf cart while explaining that the campus was large and this was the best way to get around. She took us in a loop around the Drill Field at the center of campus before heading to some of the resident halls. She showed us a typical dorm room, explaining that only freshmen were guaranteed on-campus housing. We went past the basketball coliseum and into the tunnel for the locker rooms.
Now this is what I was interested in. No matter what Dad thought, football was writing my ticket for college and I wanted to see those facilities first and foremost. Their locker and workout rooms were amazing. I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to train in facilities like those. Dad rolled his eyes while I drooled and asked more about the academics.
Since I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life after school ended, I tuned him out and continued to wander around the gym. While I was impressed with the team, I wasn’t a big fan of the ACC conference and that was going to be a part of my decision-making.
Another factor that I wasn’t going to mention to my father was how close to home this was. Only an hour and a half away from where I grew up. Normally that would have been a non-factor, but there was a reason to want to stay closer. Quick trips home would be possible from here. Missing Sookie and worrying about her moving on without me could be negated by heading just down the interstate. It was more than possible.
Dad and I spoke with some of the coaches. I was advised that if I was interested, I could definitely have a place as a Hokie in the fall. Taking over the conversation, Dad name-dropped all of the schools we were heading to as a way to fish for a better offer. Full scholarships were rare and, even though we had more than enough money to pay my tuition, Dad was ever the negotiator.
After going by one of the dining halls for lunch, we returned to the admissions office to speak with one of the counselors. I sat mutely in the overstuffed chair, wondering why I even to come on this trip. Dad was handling everything. My feelings about where I wanted to attend college would be secondary to his, like always.
Once in the car and back on the interstate heading for Knoxville, he noticed my sullen mood. “What’s up? Didn’t you like seeing the campus?”
I mumbled my agreement and went back to staring at my phone screen, waiting for a signal to hold out long enough to send a text or make a call. The damn mountains made it unpredictable and a strong signal would disappear in a blink.
“Damn it, Eric! What’s wrong? Are you going to sulk and pout like a child the entire time? I might as well turn around now if that’s the case.”
Nothing to lose by speaking up. “No, I just think it’s hilarious that you took over the tour and admissions interview like you were the one being recruited. I don’t know what I want to do besides play football and I want to do that at Tennessee. Virginia Tech has some perks, but every campus we go to will have a thing or two that I like more than the others. It doesn’t change the fact that I have wanted to go to Tennessee since I was ten years old. You didn’t even know that until Pam mentioned something last night, did you?”
A sour look crossed his face. “I think you have a childish notion that after college you’ll be drafted into the NFL. I’m trying to get your head out of the clouds. You need to focus on the academics that whatever school you choose can offer, as well as their athletic options.”
I rolled my eyes. “I know the chances of being drafted by the NFL are slim. You think I’m stupid? What even makes you think I want that? I just don’t know what else I want to do with my life right now.”
He growled at the steering wheel while making the exit for the interstate that would take us south into Tennessee. “That’s a decision you need to make before you pick a college.”
“And what? You think being led around a campus like a puppy and looking over a course catalog will help make that decision?”
“It doesn’t hurt,” he grumbled as he merged into traffic. I could tell the conversation wasn’t going in the direction he wanted and he knew me well enough to drop it.
After getting out of the mountains, my cell signal returned. While I wanted to talk to Sookie more than anything, especially after my thoughtlessness that morning, it wasn’t a conversation I wanted to have around my dad. I sent her a text telling her I would call once we got to the hotel in Knoxville and that I loved her. She replied with a heart and a smiley face, which I took as a good sign.
Dad checked in with two rooms. He wasn’t so into the father-son togetherness to want to be cooped up with me 24/7. He handed me my key and left to go to his own room, telling me to order whatever I wanted for dinner and charge it to the room. I took the elevator to my floor and settled in. Once I was alone, I hit the speed dial for Sookie, knowing she would be out of school and home.
When I got the text from Eric, it was a relief. I was distracted the whole day. I wondered if he would feel that I was an anchor dragging him down now that he had all these options for his future. Not that I really thought he would, but I didn’t have any experience with this. I also believed he had to know what was going on with me so that he could make an informed decision.
I was going to accept Northwestern. There wasn’t any question. Although my parents wouldn’t be happy that I was going so far from home, they were smart enough to accept that I knew what was best for me. With a degree from a school like that, I could write my own ticket after graduation.
I’d know what I wanted to do with my life since I was little. There was never the “ballerina-chemist-astronaut-librarian” waffling that most kids go through. Momma still had the first story I had ever written. Granted, I was in Kindergarten and it was about a princess drinking chocolate milk, but it was my first foray into literature. I never wanted to be anything besides a writer.
I didn’t know why that had never really come up in the many conversations Eric and I had in the previous eight months. Well, maybe it had, but nothing concrete about my plans after high school. And that was poor planning on my part. He deserved to know what I was planning, and the sooner the better. If he was going to Knoxville, I realized that absence would not necessarily make the heart grow fonder although he loved me. I knew he loved me. I loved him; I really did. But I was also realistic enough to realize that I was sixteen years old and had a lot of life left for me to live. It was highly unlikely that Eric would be there for most of it.
After I got home from school, I heard my phone playing Eric’s ringtone and I ran to my room for some privacy. I didn’t want to have this conversation over the phone, but I didn’t want to be interrupted in case it was brought up.
“Hey Sook,” his voice answered, sounding uncertain.
“Hey baby,” I replied, wanting him to know I was okay.
“I am SO sorry about this morning. Were you late?”
I chuckled. “No. Actually, I got to school feeling bad because I drove myself. I forgot it was one of the mornings you were going to pick me up, so I was on time. Pam told me what was going on.”
He huffed a sigh of relief. “Good. I was worried that you’d be pissed. It was an accident. Dad sprung these plans on me after I got home last night and I was kind of distracted this morning. Cell signal on I-81 SUCKS.”
I asked about the trip and he told me about the schools they were visiting over the next several days. He sounded brow-beaten and I felt for him. “Hon, aren’t you glad to get to spend some one-on-one time with your dad?”
I could almost hear his eyes rolling. “Not so much. He’s being an ass about me not knowing what I want to do with my life if football isn’t an option. I know that the NFL is a slim shot and I’m not sure I would even want to go in that direction if it were offered. Your cousin is proof that a good prospective career in athletics can be shot down in seconds and I don’t want to get a bad hit on the field and have my livelihood shattered. I know I need a fall back… I just don’t know what it should be. I can’t think of anything else I would want to spend my life doing.” He sounded so dejected and I knew I couldn’t add the stress of what I had decided on top of everything else he was trying to handle.
I forced my voice to be upbeat. “Well, take this chance. I know you have to deal with your dad, but ignore his pushiness and take the initiative. When you go on campus tours, step up and ask questions. This is your decision, not his.”
I heard the squeak of bedsprings and knew that he had flung himself onto the hotel bed. “He’s so damn overbearing. It’s hard to get a word in edgewise when he’s like this.”
“Baby, only you can decide what’s best for you. If you’ve already decided on Tennessee, play along for the next few days and stick with your decision when you get back. He doesn’t have to know that you’ve already made up your mind. If nothing else, you get to visit some beautiful areas.” I was trying to keep things light for him.
Finally, I could hear a hint of a smile in his voice. “You always know what to say to make me feel better. I hate that I don’t get to see you until Monday. I don’t know what time we’ll be getting back on Sunday.”
“Don’t even worry about it. I’m here whenever you need me,” I told him before blowing him a kiss and saying good-night.
I felt like a bitch, because I didn’t know how long I’d be able to keep that promise.