No matter where we were stationed, my dad always chose to live in post housing, from Texas, to South Carolina, down to Georgia. I didn't mind it so much when I was young, because all of my friends lived by me, but as we moved, then moved again, and again, it got old fast. I started to hate the groomed cul-de-sacs and the lines of cars at each gate. My dad loved being so close to the PX, the grocery store without tax, and the company where he worked every day. He felt safe, but as Austin and I grew up, we started to feel trapped.
I remember my mom pacing around the houses, each one of them, during the summer days. There were these hours of madness for her where the curtains were always closed and the couch turned into her bed. At first, the shift was subtle, only lasting while dad was at work. She had two personas and could switch gears within seconds. But sometime over the summer before eighth grade, the mania took over. She woke up later, took fewer showers, stopped dancing, and even stopped pacing.
Dinner was late, then hardly at all, and our parents' voices at night got louder and louder.
"Uh, Karina?" Kale's voice drew me out of my memories.
He was eyeing the green light above us. I pressed the gas.
"Sorry," I faltered, clearing my throat.
My chest was aching as I drove my thoughts into reality.
"Okay, so we're going to my dad's house and he's kind of..." I exhaled, trying to pinpoint such a complicated man with one word.
"He's sort of—"
"Racist?" Kale asked.
"What? No!" I felt a little defensive over his question until I turned toward him and saw the look on his face. It said that he genuinely figured that's what I was going to say.
I didn't know what to think about that.
"He's not racist," I told Kale as we drove. I couldn't think of anything he'd ever said or done to make me believe he was. "He's just kind of an asshole."
Kale nodded and leaned back in his seat.
"It's usually like a two-hour thing. Too much food for three people. Too much talking."
I turned onto the main road, really the only one I could navigate on the entirety of Ft. Benning. We were less than five minutes from my dad's house. We were twenty-six minutes late. It would be fine. I was an adult and something came up. They would get over it. I repeated that to myself again and began to concoct my excuse that didn't necessarily involve a stranger staying at my house.
My phone started vibrating in the cup holder between us, and I reached for it the moment I saw that it was Austin calling. I grabbed the phone. I couldn't even remember the last time he actually returned my calls.
"I'm going to get this, it's—" I didn't finish explaining to Kale.
"Hello?" I spoke into the phone, but only got silence.
I lifted it from my cheek. "Damn it." I'd missed the call. I tried to call him back but he didn't pick up.
"If you see that light up, tell me? The sound only works sometimes." I looked down at my phone and Kale agreed with a nod.
I turned onto my dad's street and tried to spend the last two minutes of the drive conjuring up an achievement, or something I could stretch to sound like one. I would need something to talk about after the scolding for my extreme tardiness. My dad always asked the same questions. To me, to his darling wife. The difference was, it only took her planting a flower bed or going to someone else's kid's birthday party to get praise, when I could save a small village and he would be like, "That's great Kare, but it was a small village. Austin once saved a slightly larger village."
It wasn't healthy to compare myself to his wife, or to my brother. I was self-aware enough to know that, but the way I felt she was positioned against me still bugged the hell out of me. And then there was the fact that Austin was always my dad's, and I was my mom's. This worked out better for my brother than it did for me.
"We're almost there. My dad's been in the army a long time," I told him. Kale was a soldier, he wouldn't need more of an explanation.
He nodded beside me and looked out the passenger window.
"How long have you been in?" I asked.
I heard him swallow before he spoke. "Little over two years."
I almost asked him if he liked it, but we were pulling up in front of my dad's house.
"We're here," I warned him. "It's like a whole fiasco, three courses. Lots of small talk and coffee after. Two hours, minimum."
"Two hours?" He blinked.
"I know. I know. You can wait in the car if you want?"
Kale opened the passenger door and leaned down to talk to me while I was still in my seat.
I checked my hair in the mirror. It was almost dry. The air was thick with humidity and it showed.
I grabbed my phone. Austin hadn't called me back. "Just saying, however awful you think it's going to be, it will be worse than that."
"Mhm," I thought I heard him say. I looked up as the passenger door shut. The reality of just how bad an idea it was to bring a stranger to Tuesday dinner was sinking in.