I was sixteen, lying in bed, feeling hungry. I put on a Virginia Tech hoodie sweatshirt and a pair of blue jeans, then I went downstairs so that I could finish eating up the greasy tuna melt that mom had made for lunch. Dad didn’t have lunch with us, which was weird because he loves the tuna melts that mom makes. And we always had lunch as a family on Saturdays. When I opened up the fridge all I saw on the middle plastic shelf were breadcrumbs from the sandwich crust sitting on a bent paper plate, the fluorescent lighting blinding me. My stomach churned from side to side and I knew that the emptiness I felt was tangible.
Then I heard someone snoring and that feeling of emptiness quickly shifted into curiosity, the goosebumps crawling down my spine. I closed the fridge, shuffled into the family room, and found the half-eaten tuna melt leaning against an ashtray on the coffee table. My heart stopped racing and I took in a deep breath, realizing that I was about to come across a story.
Dad was laying sideways on the couch, dressed in a gray T-shirt and flannel boxers, hugging onto a wrinkled pillow, a cigarette dangling from his lower lip. I reached over, grabbed the cigarette from his mouth, and grounded it out in the ashtray. The orange filter tumbled down the mountain of ash.
Dad groaned as if he were being punched in the stomach, his eyes cracking open just so that I could see the red lines scrawled over his whites. He looked at me, blinked, and then frowned. He put his face into his shoulder and coughed so hard that it seemed like his chest heaved forward, the smell of menthols filling the air.
After he cleared his throat, he sat up on the couch, tapping his knuckles against the cushions. He smiled at me and said, “Chris, how are you? I didn’t expect to see you this late, you know since you got school early in the mornings. Shouldn’t you be upstairs sleeping?”
“It's Tuna Melt Saturday dad. And shouldn't you be upstairs sleeping?” I asked, picking up the tuna melt from the coffee table. I took a bite out of the sandwich and tasted the soft cheese and the sloppy mayo.
“I should be, but I thought the couch would be more comfortable.”
“Why didn’t you eat lunch with mom and I?”
Dad shrugged and lit up a cigarette. He exhaled a ball of smoke and cracked his shoulder blades. “I had lunch with someone else.”
I almost choked on my tuna melt. “But you never miss lunch on Saturdays.”
He laughed and pulled from his cigarette.
“What’s so funny? You know how much lunch means to mom.”
He sighed and looked at the floor. Then he looked back at me and forced a weak smile. “Nothing, I didn’t mean to laugh. I’m sorry I missed lunch.”
I sunk into the couch and felt terrible for some reason. I dug my fingers into my tuna
melt. Mom made great sandwiches for lunch.
Dad folded his arms over his chest and lolled his head back on the pillow.
“What’d you do?” I said, scratching the underside of the couch arm, feeling the smooth leather against my fingernails.
“Mom’s mad that I missed lunch I guess.”
“That makes sense.”
Dad glared at me and huffed. “Lunch means so much to her.”
"Did you do anything else?"
Dad placed the cigarette in the ashtray, stood up, and walked to the fridge. "I went out for
lunch with my old high school friend Jackie and anyways your mom found out because she was looking through my messages and she freaked out. And that's why I'm sleeping on the couch tonight," he said as he poured a pitcher of orange juice into a tall glass. He closed the fridge, came back to the couch, and sipped his drink. He wiped his mouth and after he set down the glass on the coffee table, he picked up his cigarette from the ashtray and smoked.
The name Jackie seared into my brain and eroded my patience.
"You ate lunch with this Jackie woman and missed lunch with mom and me. I don’t understand why you had to eat lunch with her,” I said, pinching the bottom of my elbow until my white skin turned red.
Dad shook his head and said, "It was just lunch."
“What’d you eat?”
“Sandwiches. She made me a roast beef sandwich.”
“But mom made tuna melt.”
Dad stood up from the couch and took the tuna melt sandwich out my hand. He went into the kitchen, got around the countertop, and opened up the trashcan. He dropped the tuna melt into the trash. “I don’t like tuna melt anymore.”
After I had that talk with Dad, I went upstairs to my room and climbed into my warm bed. But I was having a hard time falling asleep. The blanket felt soft and the lamp shined with muted light. Mom was hacking out a cough with cacophony. Then I heard the front door opening and closing. A car's engine roared on the street behind my house while raindrops slid down the window of my bedroom. The wind howled with such incredible force that the shutters rattled. I wondered what lunch meant to mom and what it meant to dad and what it meant to me.
And after some time had passed all I could hear was a deafening silence and for a moment I felt powerless. I rubbed my fingers together to take my mind off the quiet night and the smell of cigarettes bloomed in the air from a previous smoke. I sighed. I could not fall asleep. I should have finished eating that tuna melt.
A throbbing pain rocked my head and it would not cease. I slipped out of bed and went downstairs to the kitchen. I drank a glass of water. It tasted cold and soothed my throat.
The TV screen cast back my reflection and I noticed that I looked disheveled. I stepped into the family room. The leather couch was empty. I wondered if dad had gone upstairs to sleep with mom. Maybe he was with that woman. Maybe he lied to me about just having lunch with Jackie. There were crumbs from the half-eaten tuna melt laying on the coffee table.
I sat down on the leather couch and read a few pages of a novel by Murakami. I liked the prose but I could not seem to close my eyes and sleep. I walked out the house and picked up the red bike lying on the front porch. As I rode around in circles on the slanted asphalt the cold air wrapped itself around me and the wheels kicked up small pebbles. Dad’s black Honda Accord wasn’t parked in the driveway. It was just lunch, right, just a roast beef sandwich, nothing more. But mom made tuna melts today. And dad missed lunch.
The rain began to fall heavier and water coated my skin. The shadows shrunk behind the street lamps. I stopped riding my bike and I smoked a joint. I started to think about how meaningless my life was. Maybe I felt that way because I had not done anything noteworthy. I didn't know. It was just a feeling. I wondered if Dad felt like this, wondered if Jackie felt this way.
And I knew tomorrow night I would not be able to sleep and I would have those bad thoughts that I always had when I was lonely. I went back inside. I climbed into bed and threw the blanket over my body. I lied there for a few hours until I fell asleep. I dreamt of having lunch with my mom and my dad. We didn’t eat sandwiches.
It was still dark outside when I woke up. I stared at the ceiling, wondering what would happen if I just left town. I presumed my parents would become sad. Friends could come and go so I didn't care too much about having ties. My job was horrible and I had no chance of moving up. I had no girlfriend. I was lonely. Did Dad feel lonely? Is that why he had lunch with Jackie? Did he like eating Jackie’s roast beef sandwich more than mom’s tuna melt?
I heard the sound of a door slamming open, breaking the quiet of the night.
I went downstairs.
Dad was stumbling around the foyer, holding a bottle wrapped up in a brown paper bag. I ran over to him and grabbed his arm to prevent him from falling forward. He reeked of alcohol and cigarettes. I struggled to hold him up; his feet were dragging along the floor, his hands flailed. I pulled him into the family room and dropped him on the couch. He smacked his lips and rubbed his face with the back of his hand. I took off his tennis shoes and put a pillow under his head. He rolled around into the cushions, coughing violently. I patted him on the back and sighed. Then I got his jacket off of him and hung it on a chair. I reached into his pocket. I felt around and touched the edges of his wallet and the cold metal of loose change. My fingers wrapped around something light and durable. I pulled it out. It was his cell phone.
I looked over at Dad.
He was snoring.
I knew it was wrong but I decided to look at his messages. The first text was from mom. The second was from me.
The third was from Jackie. I thought about my dad and him getting lunch with that woman. I remembered that her name was Jackie. I didn’t know what to think of her. I knew my mom didn’t like her. Who was this lady? I opened up the message and read it.
Jackie: 8815 Goochland Drive. Text me when you’re here Jerry.
I read the rest of the messages that my dad had sent to Jackie and the ones that Jackie had sent to my dad. It was weird to see someone calling my dad Jerry. Only mom did that.
Before I could rationalize my thinking, I texted a message to Jackie.
Jerry: Can I come over?
I walked out the family room and came into the foyer. A few minutes passed and then dad’s phone started to vibrate. I checked it.
Jackie: Jerry we had lunch earlier. And also you were just over here. I need to sleep.
I needed to sleep too, but I wanted to see this person, wanted to see why she was seeing my dad. Jackie, the woman who made roast beef sandwiches.
Jerry: I won’t take too much of your time. I promise.
Jackie: Jerry, let’s just do lunch tomorrow.
I winced and knew that this woman was something else, something that had to be removed from my dad’s life. She was an infection.
Jerry: I got to see you.
After a few minutes the phone’s screen lit up with another message.
Jackie: Okay, then come now. You can’t stay for long. But I want to see you too. I’ll be outside, smoking.
I went into the kitchen and reached into the fridge. I took out a loaf of wonder bread, roast beef, cheddar cheese, lettuce, tomato, red onion, mayo, and mustard. I set everything on the granite countertop and made a roast beef sandwich. Then I stuffed a bag of salt & vinegar potato chips and a large chocolate bar into a plastic lunch box. I took a bite out of the sandwich, then another bite, until I ate the entire roast beef sandwich. It tasted disgusting.
I lifted the metal lid of the trashcan, stuck my hand inside, and grabbed the tuna melt sandwich. I put it in the lunch box. I didn’t think dad should have eaten the roast beef sandwich for lunch. Tuna melt tasted better.
I left the house and typed in Jackie’s address into my dad’s phone GPS, and then I drove to her house. It was a large Georgian-style house that stood at the end of the slanted path. It had aluminum siding with dents pocked into the long panels. The roof shingles were composed of cedar top pieces pushed in together. The original wooden windows had perforations around the hard frame and rips across the wired screens. Brown leaves covered the crooked gutters. And the door was bright blue with humps and ridges snaking down from top to bottom. There was a woman smoking outside on the stoop, the yellow porch light flickering over her face that was etched in wrinkles. She was wearing a black Rolling Stones T-shirt and striped blue pajama pants. I hopped out my dad’s car, grabbed the lunch box from the passenger seat, and marched up the lawn. “You Jackie?”
“Yeah. Who are you?” Jackie asked, standing up from her seat.
Jackie laughed and blew out smoke. “Well isn’t this awkward. And not to mention totally inappropriate and creepy.”
“I made you lunch,” I said, handing her over the lunch box.
“Lunch?” Jackie asked, grounding out the cigarette into the porch floor. She opened up the box and took out the half-eaten tuna melt. She narrowed her eyes at me and put the tuna melt back into the box and shoved it back into my arms.
“My dad and you had lunch. Figured you would like a tuna melt sandwich.”
“I hate tuna melt. And by the way you’re friggin crazy. Get the hell off my property or I’m calling the cops.”
“It’s just lunch.”