By the time I was in my senior year of high school, my dad and I were distant planets—in the same galaxy but light years apart. Or so it seemed at times. We had established an uneasy truce, erupting into battle only a handful of times. To avoid the inevitable battle, we mostly resorted to mundane conversations like two strangers passing time on a long flight. It’s not that either of us wanted it that way. I know I didn’t. It would have been nice to have the easy going relationship that he had with Blake, and I was pretty sure Dad felt the same way about my relationship with Mom.

Maybe that’s what prompted Dad to suggest a backpacking trip, just the two of us. Maybe, like me, he could recall the bond we shared sitting around the campfire telling ghost stories or singing songs while he played his guitar. For those moments around the campfire, he wasn’t the Reverend Grayson Armstrong, full of righteous obligations. He was just Dad.

Sometimes I wondered what my life would have been like if he wasn’t a pastor, though the pointless wondering did nothing except make my heart heavier.

As the day of the camping trip approached, we prepared for it as if we were preparing for a funeral, dragging out old memories with every piece of camping equipment, as if somehow sensing that those memories could not be recreated. Perhaps we both realized that this trip was the final elegy, a lament for what should have been. I suppose it was that realization that also brought with it a sense of dread.

We were both grateful to hit the trail, because the hour-long drive to get there was painfully quiet. But something about stepping into the dense woods breathed life into us both. We teased each other about whose pack was lighter and soaked in the majestic autumn view from a ridgeline. Hope for restoration seemed less doomed to failure.

A couple of hours before nightfall, we found a clearing by a stream and made camp. Dad pitched the tents while I gathered firewood. When I came back with an armload of twigs, Dad was softly singing “Shall We Gather at the River.” He smiled at me as if I’d caught him swearing, like I’d done when I was a little boy. “Being down by a creek always makes me think of your Grandpa Armstrong,” he said. I nodded, though it was curious that Dad would be thinking of Grandpa in such a pleasant way. He had always described his father as strict and unyielding.

After eating dinner and tying the food pack up in a nearby tree, we huddled around the fire as the night air grew colder. We were quiet for a while, listening to the fire crackle and the crickets chirp nearby. I didn’t often sense God in a church building, but out among the trees, whose leaves rustled above me, I sensed his presence. I thought about the image of him as the father, an image I had been taught all my life. I could never figure out if God was a loving, benevolent father or a harsh, foreboding one. I guess the answer depended on who was required to respond.

“Did you love your father?” I said, barely above a whisper.

Dad didn’t answer right away, sensing, I guess, the root of the question.

“Yes,” he said, “Despite everything, I did.”

“Do you think I love you—despite everything?”

“I’d like to think so.” His voice was soft, full of regret.

We let the thought settle along with the cold air that hung close to the ground. I picked up a twig and held it in the flames until the end caught fire, and then I pulled it out and watched the tiny flame struggle on its own. All during high school, I had been that tiny flame—struggling, but at least not entirely on my own. Rachel had kept me from completely giving up.

She told me life would get better once I was in college—to keep hanging on, so I did. I never told her everything that happened with Kevin, but she knew it was bad. She also knew that Kevin tormented me until he was sent off to an alternative school. He never told anyone about the night at his cousin’s house, at least not that I could tell. Instead, he seemed to take greater pleasure in personally teasing me than in ceding that pleasure to anyone else. When no one else was looking, he’d pucker his lips, or if he was really trying to needle me, he’d thrust his hips in an obscene motion. Even Rachel didn’t know how bad it was, though she tried to get me to talk to the guidance counselor. I knew that would make things worse. If I believed in hell, I imagined it would be filled with Kevin’s.

I looked up at Dad and he was staring at me. His face was a play of light and shadow from the fire, giving it an ominous distortion.

“You know I love you, don’t you?” he said.

I looked back at the twig in my hand. The flame had gone out. “Even if I’m gay,” I said, not looking back at him, sensing the answer that was coming. My mind—my soul—braced for it. I wish the flames would just consume me as they do the dead branches, I thought as I waited for his answer.

“Of course, but—” He stopped himself, perhaps because he realized that there shouldn’t have been any conditions on the statement or perhaps because he was embarrassed about it being a conditional response. “I don’t think you know your own mind yet,” he finally said.

“Are you saying that because you’re terrified I am gay?”

“I’m saying it because you’re seventeen. You’re too young to really know what you want.”

“That’s a cop out, Dad. Can’t you just admit that you don’t want me to be gay?”

“Please don’t put words in my mouth. I don’t want you to be unhappy, that’s all.”

“I’ve been unhappy for a long time, but that didn’t seem to bother you—until now. Now that you know the truth.” I looked at him, daring him to say it wasn’t so.

“I think maybe we should stop this conversation before we say things we’ll regret.”

I wanted to scream at him that he was a coward, but he stood up. “It’s getting late. I’m going to turn in.” He came over and patted my head like I was still six and he was consoling me after losing the t-ball game. A part of me longed for those days, when he could give me a pat and, with a few words and a kind smile, make everything okay again. But we were both different people by then. Years of battle scars had changed us both.

“See you in the morning,” he said.

After he crawled into his tent and zipped it up, I focused on the embers, glowing bright red, particularly a small clump that had fallen away from the flames. Without flames to feed them, they would likely be the first to grow cold. Instinctively, I poured the last bit of water in my cup over them to help them die more quickly, and then I headed to my tent and closed myself inside, shutting out everything but the sound of the trees bending to the wind.

Copyright © 2019 Sherry Robinson

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