Maybe that’s part of it—I can’t take him seriously when he looks like a character from a show I never watched as a kid because we didn’t have cable. Those dads who ruined us for the real men missing from our lives. Kids like me were raised on lies told by TV writers fulfilling the fantasies of their own broken childhoods.
“Obviously, I came out here because we haven’t been able to connect on the phone,” Max continues. “I also thought perhaps this was a discussion we ought to have in person.”
That’s never good. Now I’m thinking I should have had this talk with my mom first. It’s not outside the realm of possibility that given my lack of cooperation, she had no choice but to leave me to Max’s mercy. Cut off financially, no more school, no more house. Set adrift on a raft of my own making.
“I know we haven’t had much communication over the years, Conor. I can take my fair share of the blame for that.” Not quite how I saw this beginning. “I want to start off by saying, while I certainly don’t approve of the actions you took, I can understand why you made the choice you did.”
“I know how at that age emotions get the best of us, and sometimes when outside pressure is applied to just the right spot, we make decisions and act out in ways we might never otherwise. You made a mistake, a big one. You lied. To me, yes, but more importantly to your mother. I know from your first phone call how much that’s weighed on you. And what I find encouraging is that, while it took quite a bit longer than we’d have liked, you admitted your mistake. Now comes the hard part,” he says with a hesitant smile. “Taking responsibility.”
“Have to say, you’re taking this better than I expected,” I tell him. “I wouldn’t fault you for being more on the irate side of things.”
“I admit my initial reaction was surprise. Maybe a little irate came later. Then I thought back to what I was up to when I was nineteen.” The waitress comes back to refill our mugs and he takes a long sip of coffee, as I’m left to guess what sort of trouble Max might have found for himself at Briar in his day. “Point is, I wanted to say that we’re all entitled to a few fuckups.”
I crack a smile at hearing him curse. It’s like the first time you realize that Full House dad also did the raunchiest stand-up comedy.
“I’m glad you told us the truth, Conor, and as far as I’m concerned, we can all move on from the matter.”
“That’s it?” Seriously?
“Well, your mother can’t very well ground a twenty-one-year-old man from the other side of the country,” he says with a grin.
This feels like a trap. “I thought you guys would pull me out of school or at least stop paying tuition.”
“That would seem counterproductive, don’t you think? How does interrupting your college education serve as a constructive punishment?”
“I assumed there’d be some instinct to cut me off. Financially.” It’d be more than fair considering what I did to him. The fact is, my entire livelihood is wrapped up in Max’s bank account. He supports all of us. It’s not a stretch to think he might reconsider that arrangement.
“Conor, perhaps there’s some kind of wisdom in telling you to go find a job and work eighty hours a week to still not make enough to pay rent and finish school—if you were someone else. But nobody needs to tell you how tough it is out there or the value of a dollar. Least of all me.” He sets down his mug. “You and your mother have experienced enough hardship. It wouldn’t sit well inflicting any more, and the truth is, whatever cash value your mistake cost is an insignificant sum compared to the value I place on this family.”
“I don’t know what to say.” Max has never spoken to me like this before, either about family or the way Mom and I lived before he came along. I’m not sure we’ve said this many words the entire time we’ve known each other. “I didn’t know you felt that way.”
“Family is the most important thing in my life.” He stares into his mug and his demeanor changes, a solemnness descending over his face. “You know, my dad died when I was at Briar. It was difficult for me, but more so for my mother. After that it was only the two of us and all the empty places where Dad wasn’t. When someone dies, everything becomes a memory of them not being there. Holidays and special occasions, you know? Then Mom died while I was in graduate school and I got twice as many empty memories.”
Something tightens my chest. Regret, maybe. A sense of kinship. It never occurred to me the ways in which Max and I might be similar. I mean, there’s a big difference between a runaway father and a decent one who dies too early, but both of us know what it’s like to watch our mothers struggle and be helpless to fix anything.
“What I’m trying to say is, when I met your mother, I had the utmost respect for how much she’d accomplished in raising you on her own. And I sympathized with how difficult it must have been for you. When Naomi and I married, I promised my first job would always be to take care of both of you. To make sure, as best I could, this family was a happy one.” His voice softens slightly. “I know I haven’t always lived up to that promise where you and I are concerned.”
“To be fair,” I say, “I never gave you much of a chance.” From the start, I saw Max as some tool in suit. Someone I’d never relate to, so why bother trying. “I figured you came for my mom, and I was the unfortunate compromise. Because you were from such a different world than us, you just saw me as a loser kid who wasn’t worth the effort.”
“No, Conor, not at all.” He pushes his coffee mug aside and sets his elbows on the table.
He’s got a certain magnetism about him, I can’t deny that. I feel like when he sits across a boardroom from someone, they can’t help but believe whatever he’s selling them will make them rich.
“Listen, I came into this thing with zero idea how to do it well. I wasn’t sure if I should try to be a father to you or a friend, and I failed at accomplishing either. I was so afraid to assert myself too much in the middle of you and your mother, that maybe I didn’t make enough of an effort to build a relationship with you.”
“I didn’t make it easy for you,” I admit. “I figured if you couldn’t stand me then I could be just as good at hating you. I think maybe…” I swallow hard, averting my eyes. “I didn’t want to get rejected by another dad. So I rejected you first.”
“Why would you think that?” He sits back, appearing genuinely surprised.
“I mean, look at us. We’re nothing alike.” Well, that might be a little less true now that I know we have some things in common, but still, I can’t imagine he’d have much use for me if I were a stranger off the street. “I know you have this idea in your head that I should be more like you, take an interest in business and finance, work at your company and follow your path, but honestly, that bores the hell out of me. It drains the joy from my entire being to even think about it. So I’m left with this feeling that I’m never going to be good enough. I avoided your calls this week because I was embarrassed and I didn’t need confirmation that everything I’d feared about myself was true.”