by Liz Harmer
Henry and Gretchen's parents have just gotten divorced. To take their mind off things, their dad takes them on a road trip down the east coast of the US. Along the journey, timid, insecure Henry secretly corresponds with his mother by email, while brash, certain Gretchen floats a disturbing possibility: perhaps, on this road, as with his marriage, their dad will prove too stubborn to turn back.
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THE LITTLE BLURBS OF flab hanging on either side of Henry’s back, pinched by the elastic of his swim trunks, were called love handles — so named because they were nice to grab during sex. Henry discovered this during an online search using terms like big hunks of flab above my butt and symmetrical back fat boys men. Heart racing, he cleared the search history and wiped the keys of his dad’s laptop, which had quickly greased with his sweat. Henry was just plopping down on the floral covers on the motel bed, trying to arrange his hands casually on his belly, when Dad walked in. No knock.
“Whatcha watching, buddy?”
The TV had been left on CNN. Henry shrugged.
“All right.” Dad put a hand through his sparser and sparser hair. The trip, now into its fifth week, had aged him. He was yellowing. The skin on his face seemed tougher somehow, less humanly soft. His ears were like costume ears, glued on. The balding was accentuated by the fact that Dad hadn’t gotten a haircut all summer. The strands had grown into long, sagging spikes of dried hay. “Hey. You know where your sister is?”
Henry shrugged again.
Dad sat down on the other bed, Gretchen’s bed. “You want to talk about anything?”
What Henry wanted to do was to cry, but he cried too much, too often, and it would only make his face red and splotchy, would only have him wiping his nose on his arm; these things were as bad as love handles and man boobs for making Gretchen and Dad look sadly away from him. They pitied him his shame, which only made it worse.
What Henry wanted to do was to find the zipper on this fat suit and peel the thing right off, to emerge tight and tanned and fast. What Henry wanted to do was to run away from this room, down the balcony stairs, past the pool and teenaged receptionists, down past the many parking lots to the beach. What he wanted to do was to keep running until he got back home. People ran like that, super far and without stopping. Forrest Gump and Terry Fox had done it.
“So. Hey. What should we get for dinner?”
But Henry couldn’t run for the bounce of his man boobs. At least girls had the dignity of bras. He shrugged.
Dad sighed loudly. “I know this is hard, but come on. You’ve got to give me something.”
DINNER WAS ANOTHER SEAFOOD place, another dingy patio surrounded by boats bobbing in the harbor. The patio was perched on a deck, and its angle was so lopsided that they might go sliding off into the water, sinking Titanic-style.
“Let’s do our highlights and lowlights,” Dad said, after ordering the cheapest fish and chips on the menu. Highlights and lowlights had been Mom’s dinner table talk, cheesy enough even then, this listing of the best and worst moments like sportscasters after a game.
Gretchen gave Henry the oh please look. They’d found her elsewhere in the motel, in a stranger’s room, sitting on the floor while this guy Mac played folk songs on his guitar. Mac had big sideburns, was easily twenty. Mom would have flipped, but Dad just told her quietly that it was time for dinner. She was acting strange, slow and smiley, and Henry knew she was pretending to be on drugs to impress Mac. They had x-ray vision with each other.
“Highlight: I met a guy,” Gretchen said.
Dad, unlike Mom, never asked follow-up questions.
“No lowlights,” she claimed.
A long pause followed, and the food arrived on three plates, wafting warmth and sweetness. It had been five hours since Henry ate. That afternoon he’d resisted the lure of snack-cakes sitting boxed on the motel desk and had instead walked down to the beach arcade, tummy gurgling, love handles wobbling as he slapped at the old pinball machines.
“Henry?” Dad said.
“No highlights. No lowlights,” Henry said.
“Come on, buddy.”
“But we’re not doing anything. Nothing’s happening,” he slurped at the straw in his diet coke. “When are we going home?”
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from the library
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Winner of the 2015 Friends of Merril Short Story Contest, When I'm Old, When I'm Grey imagines the strange — and strangely familiar — forms that fear and longing can take, as we venture forth into the unknown of the future.
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