“Dad, did you get the paperwork for my passport? Mama can’t do the application without your approval,” Dominick reminded during our usual twice-weekly phone call.
I rubbed my head thinking I needed a haircut, as I sat back in my leather chair at my home office. “I thought you were waiting until I came to town to complete everything?” My son had just turned twelve and he’d traveled with his other grandparents to Disneyworld, so I hadn’t seen him since the Christmas holidays and looked forward to seeing him.
“That’s two weeks away.”
“And plenty of time to get your passport. You’re not going to South Africa for two months. Relax.” Dominick would be going with classmates on a special trip abroad with his seventh-grade class in May. I’d wanted to go with him, but only one parent could attend and Vonni volunteered.
He urged, “This trip is important.”
I acknowledged, “I know that, but we have time.”
“What if you can’t visit in two weeks?”
“Dominick…” I warned. “I’ll be there.”
“Even if Uncle Kari is here?”
I straightened in my chair. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“He plans to come to my tournament too.”
I cursed under my breath. Of course, Dominick would invite his uncle. “You still didn’t answer why you think I won’t be there if Uncle Kari is there? Did he say something to you?”
“No. But you don’t talk about him and he asks about you like you and he doesn’t speak. I thought maybe you got into an argument.”
“Well, I miss spending time with both of you at the same time. The three of us were supposed to go paintball and that was when I was ten.”
“You and I can go paintball when I see you.”
“With Uncle Kari too?”
“He may not be able to make it.” I wasn’t ready to see Kari yet and I should’ve realized that Kari would travel to see Dominick in the tournament. He had always been a good uncle, taking time out of his busy schedule to travel to Tallahassee to spend time with his nephew. From our conversations I’d known that Kari remained in touch with my son, even visiting him a few times since Atlanta was only a four-hour drive from Tallahassee. I would listen quietly as Dominick told me about the fun time, he’d had with his uncle. I waited with bated breath, at one point would Kari tell Dominick about his daughter or Kam. As far as I could tell he hadn’t.
“He’s going to make it. I just talked to him earlier today.”
My pulse quickened. “Did you? What did he say?”
“He said he would be here and asked if you would be here too. I think he wants to apologize, and you should accept it.”
I didn’t respond.
“Daddy, as much as Dallas annoys me, I’m always her big brother,” he said proudly.
Vonni had gotten married and had a daughter when Dominick had turned six. Shortly after, Kari finally told my parents about Dominick. I remember feeling relief more than anger at Kari for doing so. Ironically, I’d felt the same way when he yelled that I had a child at that embarrassing Thanksgiving dinner in which I’d been decidedly a low human being for throwing my brother’s painful suicidal attempt in his face. Although I hated how it all went down, I’d been relieved it was finally out in the open. I thought Kari did it out of frustration that I’d kept Kam in the dark, when the heart of the matter is that he couldn’t stand that Kam and I were trying to work out our issues. He wanted to destroy us, and he did.
“I hope you always feel that way about your sister, but some things are hard to forgive. And how do you know it’s something that he did to me?”
“Because he asks about you all the time and you never ask about him. Should I be mad with him too?”
Slinking down in my chair, I tapped the ends of my mahogany desk. “No, Kari hurt me but I’m glad that he’s still in your life and that’ll never change. He loves you as much as I do. Whatever is between us isn’t going to affect how we feel about you, and you shouldn’t treat your uncle any different, okay?”
“I haven’t been, and I won’t.” He paused before adding, “So paintball with Uncle Kari?”
“We’ll see,” I answered noncommittally. I had no intention of doing paintball with Kari and I damn sure didn’t want to spend a weekend let alone a day with him. “I have a meeting, call you tomorrow? Make sure you study your French. Your mama told me you barely passed your last test.”
“I got it under control, she didn’t have to tell you anything.” He sounded annoyed.
“Yes, she did. We expect great things because we both know you can do anything you put your mind to. I won’t tolerate failure without a lack of trying,” I said, sounding more like my father than I ever thought I would. I then took a breath and softened my tone. “Look, no extra pressure, just know that I want to know everything concerning you. I’ve always hated that we lived in two different cities. And if I didn’t think your mother would literally die, I would have you live with me.”
“Now that you’re divorced or always?” He and Vonni knew I was divorced but not the details.
“I’ve always wanted you with me,” I said truthfully. I did want him and maybe I would have been honest with Kam if I thought there was a remote chance in hell that Vonni would have given me custody. She had been fiercely protective over Dominick and had been an awesome mother, a better mother than I thought she would be. Most of our arguments were about her bitterness toward Kam who she believed refused to acknowledge Dominick. Even when I told her that she still didn’t know about my son, she thought I was lying and protecting Kam. We’d finally resolved that we wouldn’t talk about our lives outside of Dominick and rarely did we disagree about decisions she’d made about our son. “Maybe she’ll let you spend your high school years with me.”
“I would’ve loved that so I can see Nanee and Grandpa all the time, too.”
“Maybe your mama will let me. I can talk to her and give her time to adjust to the idea since it’s two years away.”
“No, Daddy. I can’t live with you now. Mama needs me since Mr. Philip moved out.” Mr. Philip was Vonni’s husband for the past six years. I’d never particularly cared for him, he seemed too dependent on a woman to take care of him. He’d moved into Vonni’s home and he didn’t elevate her living condition going from job to job. He’d always been cordial and friendly toward me and Dominick, so I held my peace since he was Vonni’s problem and not mine.
“When did that happen?”
“It’s none of your business,” Vonni retorted. She must have taken the phone from Dominick.
“Hey, I didn’t ask him to tell me anything. I don’t ask about your personal life if it doesn’t impact Dom.” I paused a beat, unable to resist. “So, what happened? I thought you two were in marital bliss.”
She snorted. “I’d rather not talk about it, just like you won’t tell me what went down between you and your precious Kam.” I heard a door close and she whispered, “Unless you want to tell me now since we both have failed marriages. Dom is in another room.”
I leaned back in my chair, contemplating whether to tell her everything. I’d known Vonni longer than any other woman because of our son and believed I could confide in her. Then again, I believed the same about Kari. “Maybe when I come to town, we can talk more. We haven’t just had a moment to talk in years.”
Vonni responded softly, “I would like that.”
My dick stirred at the tone in her voice that I hadn’t heard since I cut off the sexual part of our relationship years ago. I could tell she’d never stopped loving me, even after she started dating and married Philip. Vonni would find opportunities to touch my arm or my waist and her expression would always soften when she looked at me when her husband wasn’t around. It’s why as much as she threatened to tell Kam about Dom, she never did because she didn’t want to hurt me that way. I wasn’t sure getting involved again with Vonni was a good idea now that we were both uncoupled. She could be manipulative and hateful, but we were older now and I had broken her heart. “Okay, maybe we can talk after dinner when I’m there or something. You good? Do you need any money?”
“I could use some help with the mortgage, but I can manage. I’d been paying for most of the bills anyway for years,” she said with irritation.
“I’ll put two thousand in your account extra once we get off the phone.”
“Aaron…I don’t want you to think you have to take care of me, now. You’ve been more than fair with Dom.” Surprisingly, having Dominick motivated Vonni to return to school and finish her degree in nursing. She’d wanted to better provide for him and had been doing well with her job at one of the local hospitals.
“I know I don’t have to take care of you now, just giving you some help. You’ve been a good mother to my son.”
“Why you have to be so arrogant? Your son? I carried his heavy butt for nine months,” she teased.
I bragged. “He’s my son and a Youngblood.”
Without the usual sarcasm whenever she mentioned my family, Vonni added, “You and your family are like a black Dynasty.”
She giggled. “Speaking of fam, your brother is coming to the tournament with us.”
I sighed. “I know and I don’t like it.”
“I figured something is up between you too. Whatever it is you need to squash it. Dom and I were devastated when we thought he’d been killed. It’s a miracle he’s alive so whatever it is, can’t be worth not talking to him.”
“I’m glad he’s alive like everyone else but —”
“—But nothing Aaron. Work it out. He’s your brother and he’s always had your back.”
Bristling at her belief that Kari would never hurt me, I snapped, “Alright, I got to go. I’ll put the money in your account and see you in a couple of weeks.”
She paused on her end, before she reluctantly said, “Bye, Aaron.”
As soon as I clicked off the phone, I texted Kari.
Skip the tournament. Visit Dominick another weekend.
He must have been on his phone because he immediately responded.
Not happening. I can’t disappoint him.
He’ll get over it.
He invited me.
I appreciate that you still in his life and I won’t ever come in between you and him. But I don’t want you there.
You already coming in between us. I just told him I would be there, and I can’t lie to him. I’m not letting Dom down because you can’t get past what happened. He doesn’t even know he has a cousin because I’ve been trying to be respectful of your feelings. Our parents missed out on six years of Dom’s life. I don’t want my daughter to miss out on knowing Dom or you.
I shut my eyes, heart aching at him discussing his daughter, who Kam named Kari when we thought Kari had been killed. I’d been there by Kam’s side when she brought her into the world, and I’d looked forward to being an uncle. I didn’t want Dominick to miss out on knowing his beautiful baby cousin either and I missed baby Kari, too. Why couldn’t my brother have chosen another woman? I can accept that Kam no longer wanted to be married to me, but to have a constant reminder of how I fucked up my marriage to a woman I really did love was too damn hard.
Fucking stay home.
That’s what you did when you took my wife.
Kari texted back after a couple of minutes had passed.
Fine Aaron. I won’t go.
After I hit send. I toyed with calling Tisha and decided not to. It’d been more than two weeks since we’d spoken, and I’d been miserable without her raspy voice. I wanted her advice on how to handle Kam and Kari and the baby. I recognized I’d fallen in the same pattern of avoiding the truth at all costs. I just didn’t know how to break that habit without falling apart. I had to keep control of my emotions. I had to. And all Tisha would do is remind me that I was still being selfish.
When I pulled into the driveway of Vonni’s home, Dominick opened the door with the widest gap-toothed smile so like mine and hurried to my car. Joy spread through my core at the only constant in my life, the love I have for my son. He would be a much better man than me and I could see it in his patient and kind regard to everyone he met. I stepped out of the car and grabbed him in a chokehold playfully. “Can you break loose?”
He struggled, though I held fast. I’d been doing this with him since he was five, looking forward to the day he would be strong enough to win. Every time he grew stronger and I had to fight harder to hold on to him.
I heard Vonni’s soft voice that always reminded me of a girl instead of a woman. “When are you going to stop tussling with that boy? One day you’re going to hurt him.”
“No, he won’t.” Dominick panted and he fought harder determined to break free.
“Did Aaron used to do that to you?” she asked someone.
“Yeah, and he won’t hurt him.”
I looked up at the sound of Kari’s voice. And Dominick used the slackness in my body to slide out of my arms. I slumped against my car as Dominick jumped around in victory. Bakari Youngblood, my younger brother who invoked so many painful emotions, stood at the door with his hands in his jean pockets with a half-smile. “Hey, Ron Ron.”
Barely nodding my head in acknowledgement, I wondered why through the swirl of my emotions, I detected an overwhelming sense of relief rather than the anger I expected at seeing my brother again.