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Hillview Junior High School was nothing fancy. I might have walked in with a little bit of a chip on my shoulder, considering that I was supposed to go to La Loma Junior High School in Modesto, and not until the following year. Not Hillview. Not yet. So I might have purposely set the bar high in my mind when I already knew that there was no way I was going to let myself adapt and get comfortable at my new school.
To tell the truth, though, I was overwhelmed. To leave the comfortable setting of the playground at El Vista in Modesto for the hustle and bustle of Hillview Junior High in Pittsburg was like leaving my warm, soft bed for a cold shower. I was lost all day, and to top it all off, the only class I had with Justin was math.
I guess it was sort of cool to change classes and be in a different room for each subject, but to be honest, I could have lived without it. Getting my lunch was a challenge, too, but not as much of a challenge as finding a place to sit down and eat it. I was so used to a closed cafeteria and a structured setting, but at Hillview, we got our lunch and took it back outside. There were plenty of tables, but it seemed like every one of them was taken.
The only good part about my new school was the fact that my grandparents lived pretty close, so it only took me about ten minutes to walk home. Of course, that time seemed to fly when I was walking with Justin, who I was already making plans with to meet up after we were done with our homework. As we were walking toward our neighborhood, I found myself silently hoping that my dad was going to be waiting for me when I got home. I had asked him if he could come see me on my first day, and he said he'd try, but he didn't make any promises.
As soon as I walked through the door, I hit the books. I had quite a bit of homework to get done, but I knew that if I paced myself, I could have it done in about two hours. That meant I could still have time to ride my bike to Justin's and be back in time for supper. Some of the work was difficult for me, but it was nothing too hard. For the most part, it was all work I had done before, but I wasn't going to tell anyone and wind up in classes that were too hard for me.
While I was doing my homework, my grandma brought me a peanut butter and honey sandwich and a glass of milk to wash it down with. There's something about peanut butter on my grandma's homemade bread with honey drizzled inside that made my mouth water. It went down perfectly with a cold glass of milk, and it was just what I needed after a hard first day at school.
When I finished my homework, I looked up at the clock and it wasn't even four o'clock yet. I was a little surprised that I was able to finish so quickly, but I didn't second guess myself. Instead, I called Justin to see if he was finished with his homework yet. He said he wasn't but that he didn't have that much left, and that he could finish it later.
When we met up on the corner of the block he lived on, I almost choked on my own spit when he caught my eye. I had just seen him at school and on the way home, but he had changed clothes and for whatever reason, he looked especially cute. He had a Cincinnati Reds hat on and his dark, curly hair was poking out from underneath the rim. His dark red lips looked almost wet from the sunlight that reflected off of them, and his smile was as broad as I had ever seen it. I shyly returned his smile and wondered to myself if he realized that he had such a cute face.
Buchanan Park wasn't exactly off limits, but I hadn't ever bothered to ask my grandparents for permission to go, either. The thing is, it was right by my school, and my school wasn't too far from home. So, in my mind, I had reasoned that it was probably okay to venture to the park with Justin.
We parked our bikes by the edge of the sandbox and crawled inside of a long, concrete cylinder that was adjacent to the slides. Sitting there with Justin as we listened to the cars whiz by on Harbor Avenue was almost serene. We were sitting so close that our shoulders were touching, and I could hear his breathing, sounding as pure to me as it did the first night I spent the night at his house. For a moment, I lost track of my thoughts and found myself lost in his eyes as we smiled almost dumbly at each other, neither one of us speaking a word.
Every instinct I had told me to reach over and wrap my arms around him and hug him, but common sense told me not to. As much as I wanted to show him the affection I was feeling for him, I felt like it wasn't okay. I didn't want to do anything to risk our friendship, which I was coming to cherish more and more each day.
When I got home that evening for supper, I was shocked to see my grandpa's car gone. He was never late for dinner. In fact, it was one of the few things that my grandparents had set rules about. If I didn't do anything else, I had to be on time for supper. I brought my bike in through the side gate and parked it in the shed where it went, then I went inside through the back door. As soon as I walked through the door, I knew something was wrong. There was no dinner cooking, and my grandma was sitting on the couch chewing on her middle finger, looking nervous.
"Grandma, is everything okay?" I asked as I took a seat next to her. She smiled weakly down at me and nodded, then she stood up.
"Come on, Kevin," she instructed me. "Grandpa had to go to Modesto, and we're going out to eat tonight."
"Why did my grandpa have to go to Modesto?" I asked, feeling suddenly panicked.
"There's nothing to worry about, sweetie," she said nervously, and I knew she wasn't telling me something.
"Is my dad okay?" I asked, feeling a sinking feeling in my gut.
"He's fine, Kevin," she said sincerely, putting me mildly at ease but still leaving me in a state of panic. "Grandpa should be home any time now. We'll get something for him too."
We ended up at a Burger King near the freeway, and instead of going inside, we got our food at the drive through and drove home with it. We ate in silence at the table as my grandma worriedly looked at the clock, and my mind raced the whole time. In my heart, I knew something was wrong, I just didn't know what it was. As the possibilities ran through my head, I felt scared. If something had happened to my dad, I wasn't sure what I'd do. I was terrified of getting the news that he had died. I know my grandmother said he was fine, but her demeanor told me for sure that something was amiss.
By eight o'clock, my grandpa still hadn't made it home and I was definitely scared, but my grandma just told me to get in the shower and get ready for bed. When I got out, I went down the hall to my room and put on a clean pair of underwear and a long nightshirt, then I looked in the mirror and tried to comb my hair out. It was getting long, and it suddenly dawned on me that I hadn't had a haircut since I had come to live with my grandparents.
Before he removed himself from my life, my dad used to be the one to take me to the barber. We had an old barber we went to in Modesto, and it always smelled like talc and cologne in the shop he had, and it seemed like we were his only customers, because he was usually sitting in one of his chairs reading the paper when we came in. My dad swore that we had the best barber in town, though, and after he was done cutting our hair, my dad always gave me five dollars to tip him with.
As I ran the comb through my hair, I heard a pair of cars pull in to the driveway, and I instantly went to my bedroom window to see who it was. At first I couldn't tell, but as soon as I saw the tall figure step out of the truck that had pulled in behind my grandpa's car, I grinned and ran out of my room. I rounded the corner to the living room, just in time to see my grandpa walk through the front door just in front of my dad, who was carrying an overnight bag.
"Dad!" I almost yelled as I ran up to him, wrapping my arms around his waist.
"Hey buddy," he said happily as he knelt down and wrapped his arms around me and kissed me on the head. "I missed you, kiddo."
"I missed you too, dad," I said, leaning up against him and rubbing the side of my face and head as hard as I could against his chest. I couldn't believe he was back. As real as it was to me, I wanted to be sure I wasn't dreaming.
"I can tell," he chuckled, giving me another squeeze. I followed him to my room, where he put his bag in the closet, then went back out to his truck and brought in two more. I wasn't too sure what was happening, but something told me that he was planning to stay for a while. I didn't question his motives, though. Instead, I silently rejoiced that he was there and that he had come alone.
I spent the rest of the evening talking to my dad about my first day at school and showing him my homework. My grandparents left us alone for the most part, too. My grandma brought my dad some leftover leg of lamb and roasted potatoes from the night before while I was showing him my homework at the table, but that was it. At ten o'clock, it was my bedtime, and I didn't argue. Instead, I dutifully gave everyone a hug and kiss goodnight and went to my room. About five minutes after I had laid down, my dad came in and turned on the lamp and sat on the edge of my bed, smiling down at me.
"Are you all set?" he asked as he brought the covers up to my chest and smiled down at me. I smiled back and nodded, then I waited for him to speak again. From the introspective look on his face, I knew he was looking for a way to tell me something, but he hadn't found the words just yet. I knew it wasn't an appropriate time to feel bubbly inside, but that was exactly how I felt in anticipation of what he was about to tell me. I just knew it was good news.
"Listen, buddy," he started. "Dad's going to be staying here for a little bit. I'll probably be going back and forth to Modesto to see your brother, but ...." His voice trailed off for a moment and he had a sad look on his face, but he cleared his throat and continued.
"I guess the important thing is that I'm going to be here, son," he said. "We'll talk more about this when you get home from school, okay?"
"Okay dad," I nodded. He smiled down at me and leaned down to give me one more kiss goodnight.
"I love you Kevin," he said. "You have sweet dreams, okay?"
"I love you too dad," I said. "I'll see you in the morning."
When he closed the door, I lay still and contemplated a whole new series of possibilities. I wasn't sure what we were going to talk about the next day, but I understood exactly what my dad was telling me. I had a hard time telling myself that it was true, though. I had so many fantasies over the years that one day, it was going to be just me and my dad, but it never seemed possible.
Between my mom and my stepmom, I never thought the day was going to come. Still, in my own thoughts, my own dreams, I made it so. But this was different. This wasn't a fantasy. It wasn't a story I was telling myself. I wasn't daydreaming. It was really happening. But for some reason, I still couldn't convince myself that it was true.
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