“Hey, Bentley. Where’s your leash?”
Bentley’s head lifted, his ears perked up and he jumped off the sofa in the family room. I rose from my chair at the kitchen table and headed for the laundry room. Tail wagging, Bentley followed me in.
Dad waited only a month after we lost Francis before coming home one afternoon with a brand new puppy—an adorable black lab I fell in love with at first sight.
From that moment on, Bentley and I were best pals. He formed a closer bond with me than anyone else because both my parents worked and I was the first one home every afternoon to take him for a walk. I made sure his food and water bowls were always full in the mornings, and he slept on the floor in my room on a large green pillow. I loved him dearly.
After attaching the leash to Bentley’s collar, I led him out the front door. While I stood there locking the door behind me, I heard a car speed by on the road at the bottom of the hill. A few years earlier, a crew had come in and paved the road all the way to the next town, so we now had a steadier stream of traffic moving at a faster clip in front of our house. In addition to that, a number of new homes had gone up since the paving project was announced. We were no longer the only house between the main road and the bootlegger’s shack—which as far as I knew was still there.
There had been other changes to our lives as well. Rick graduated from high school with honors and received a scholarship to UCLA. He was still there, living out west, working on an MBA.
As for me, I was still living at home, working at the airport as an operations assistant until I figured out what to do with my life. My father wanted me to enroll in a science program and go to dental or medical school. I certainly had the grades for either of those options, but I just wasn’t that keen on following in my father’s footsteps. We were different, he and I, and I wanted to choose my own path. Maybe it would have something to do with aviation. I’d always had an interest in that. I just wasn’t sure yet.
That’s when I met Angela. She, too, had decided to take a year off after high school and she was working as a waitress in one of the airport restaurants. Just like seeing Bentley for the first time, it was love at first sight when she approached me in the staff parking lot, needing help because she’d locked herself out of her car. I called AAA for her and waited for them to arrive, but when she finally got into her car, the engine wouldn’t start. So after arranging to have her vehicle towed to a repair shop, I gave her a lift home.
Three weeks later, we were seeing each other every day and I was head over heels in love. I hadn’t had much experience with girls and I never imagined it could be like that, but everything about Angela suited me. She was a bit of a math geek, like me, and she hadn’t had much experience in the dating scene either. I couldn’t understand why, because I thought she was the most beautiful creature to ever walk the earth. Her hair was jet black, cut in a shoulder-length bob with bangs, and she had giant brown eyes and a soft, smooth ivory complexion. She was very petite at five-foot-three and went to yoga class three times a week. Every time I saw her, I felt like I’d been run over by a truck. She was fun and sweet and incredibly kindhearted. Bentley loved her, too.
Before long I started thinking about moving out of my parents’ house and getting a place of my own. My parents didn’t approve, of course, because they still wanted me to go to university and make something of myself.
When I brought it up at the dinner table one night, my father’s bushy eyebrows pulled together and two large vertical creases formed between them. He set down his fork and knife and leaned back in his chair.
“How will you ever go to a good school if you’re tied down to some waitress here in town, struggling to pay your rent every month?” he asked.
“Maybe I don’t want to go to a good school,” I defiantly replied. “Maybe I just want to keep working at the airport.” My mother fidgeted uncomfortably and her eyes pleaded for me to walk away from this one.
He scoffed at me, as if I were a fool. “Believe me, when the shine wears off of this exciting new relationship and you’re stuck in a dead end job, arguing with that girl about how you’re going to pay the phone bill, you’ll feel differently, and you’ll wish you had listened to me.”
“Maybe so,” I replied, “but it’s my life and I’m not a kid anymore. I’m nineteen and you have to let me make my own decisions.”
He and Mom exchanged a look, as if they were carrying on a mental conversation I wasn’t privileged to be a part of.
Then Mom leaned across the table and clasped my hand. “Jesse, it’s not that we don’t like Angela. She’s probably a very nice girl. But you’ve had so little experience in that area. How can I say this…?” She paused, then continued. “It’s important to try on some different styles and sizes before you make a commitment you can’t get yourself out of.”
She was so much gentler than my father. Nevertheless, I frowned at her. “It’s not like we’re moving in together.” Though the idea wasn’t far from my mind. Angela and I had only been seeing each other for a month, but I figured—and hoped—moving in would be the next step. For now, I just wanted a place where I could have my privacy to be with her.
My father still hadn’t picked up his fork. “Your mother’s right,” he said in that deep, reverberating voice that made everyone quiver. “You should be dating lots of girls before you settle for just one.”
“Like Rick does?” I tersely asked. I set my fork down and leaned back in my chair. “He dates all kinds of girls and manages to have a whale of a time. Do you want me to be more like him and break lots of hearts?”
“That’s not fair,” Mom said. “Rick has always worked very hard at school and sports. He’s incredibly busy and doesn’t have time for a serious relationship, that’s all.”
“And look where he is now,” my father added. “In the MBA program at Anderson Business School. He’ll have his pick of high-paying jobs the minute he steps off that campus.”
I took a deep breath and let it out because I knew this conversation was pointless. My parents wanted me to be a great “success” like Rick, but when it came right down to it, my definition of success differed from theirs. I didn’t need to make a million dollars. I didn’t want to have a series of superficial relationships with girls I had nothing in common with. I’d already found the girl who was right for me and I just wanted to be with her. It didn’t mean I was going to give up any thought of doing something more with my life. I just wanted her at my side, no matter what I chose to do.
“It’s my decision to make,” I said, pulling my napkin from my lap and tossing it onto the table. “Excuse me, Mom. I’m finished now.”
My father stared up at me with displeasure as I carried my plate to the kitchen. “Fine,” he said, “but don’t expect any help from me when you can’t pay your rent.”
“I’ll remember that.” On my way upstairs, I picked up the newspaper from the front hall so I could check out the classifieds.
A week later, I signed the lease on my first apartment, which came cheap because it was a mile from the airport and the roar of the planes flying overhead turned off most prospective renters. It was convenient for me, however, because I could reach work in ten minutes by bicycle, and Angela could come and stay over anytime she liked.
My dad was true to his word. He didn’t help me with anything. He didn’t let me take any of the furniture from my room—not a single item—so I had to purchase a bed and a table at yard sales. My mother couldn’t stand with me on this, but I remember the lump in my throat when she quietly slipped fifty dollars into my hand on the day I moved out.
It was Angela who helped me shop for plates and kitchen utensils, bedding and a small television set, all of which we found at second hand stores. Her parents gave me a sofa they wanted to get rid of anyway.
Ironically, the one thing my father let me take from the house was the only thing I really wanted.
He let me have Bentley.
I didn’t call my parents or speak to them for over two months. I wasn’t trying to punish them. I just had no interest in being lectured about why I was making the worst mistake of my life. So I waited it out and thought maybe, eventually, they would accept my decision and let me choose my own path.
The way I saw it, even if I was making a mistake, it was my mistake to make, and I was ready and willing to learn from it—and all the others I would likely make in the coming years.
Wasn’t that part of life? To follow your heart? Explore the unknown and engage in a little trial and error?
Angela, for the most part, agreed with me, though she worried about me losing touch with my family. She certainly didn’t want to feel responsible for that, so when a third month passed and there was still no communication, she suggested I pick up the phone.
“Call when you know your father won’t be there,” she suggested one evening while we were out walking Bentley. “How much you want to bet your mom will be thrilled to hear your voice and she won’t even tell him you called if you don’t want her to.”
I considered that. “If she wants to hear my voice, she could call me any time,” I said. “I’m in the book.”
“No, you’re not. You won’t be in the book until the next one comes out.”
“When will that be?” I asked.
“I have no idea,” she replied with a chuckle.
Bentley paused briefly to lift a leg and pee on a mailbox, then continued on.
“I’m sure Mom knows the number for directory assistance,” I mentioned.
Playfully, Angela shoved me into the chain-link fence that ran along the sidewalk. “You’re impossible,” she said.
I bounced off the fence and returned to her side. “Yep, and that’s why you love me.”
“Is it?” she replied with mischief in her eyes. “I thought it was for another reason entirely.”
I smiled and wrapped my arm around her. We walked on, our steps in perfect unison while a giant Boeing 767 passed over our heads—taking off for some exotic location, no doubt.
The thought of what unexplored territories were over my own horizon filled me with hope and excitement. I felt like one those jetliners, finally lifting off the runway. Everything in my world seemed new and full of promise.
It’s a shame that feeling didn’t last longer. Two weeks later I was forced to come down from the clouds when my mother called with some news.
Suddenly, I was back on the ground, living among the pressures of my old world.