Tobin stands outside of her father’s house hesitantly. She eyes the cars in the driveway, she can see her father’s sunglasses on the dash of his old truck and his stupid Hawaiian girl bobblehead too. She notices the path of rose bushes leading up to the front porch where there is a hanging wooden swing. A mosquito candle on a light-fired glass table.
“If you’re not ready, we can go,” Christen says, her skin crawling at Tobin’s sudden silence while standing on the porch. She doesn’t want to rush Tobin into this, not while she’s honestly emotionally volatile. It had been a few weeks since they were at the Press pack’s and then back at Portland for a few before coming out to Jersey. And each day for Tobin was more agonizing than the last. It starts with her thinking that her father deep down hates her because she’s gay, and ends wondering if his half-assed acceptance is grounds enough to leave and never return.
“I’m…” Tobin hums for a moment as her eyes catch a potted plant. It’s leafy and still green as the season starts to change. But it’s the pot that stands out for Tobin. It’s clay and very basic like the one you’d get at any old home improvement store. This one isn’t as bare however, it has a very beautiful sunset swept across it. Well beautiful for a nine-year-old’s sake anyway.
Tobin remembers the day she painted it. It was just any other day really in elementary school they were trying to do crafts to fill up some extra time before spring break. And her teacher suggested painting pots to bring home with a couple of bags of sunflower seeds to plant. Tobin remembers the acrylic paint dripping down her right arm as she laid it across the pot to hold it steady. Mrs. Smith had complimented her work, and it was the first time a teacher had done so. In retrospect, Tobin knew the teacher was just being kind and glad she hadn’t finger painted it. The lines were too thick, the colors not blended, and the reflection of the sunset in the water seemed clunky. And now her dad had the damn thing on his porch. She didn’t even remember him liking it.
“...ready as I’ll ever be I think.”
Christen takes a deep breath, going up to press the doorbell since Tobin was still not making a move towards it. She sees Jeff through the window, grinning at them.
“Toby! Christen, come on in you two. Did ya bring any luggage?” Jeff says, welcoming them in like old friends. Tobin shakes her head, fiddling with her leather jacket pockets.
“We got a hotel up the road dad. Didn’t want to put you out,” She explains. Truthfully Tobin had convinced Christen to let her get a hotel room because she didn’t know if any fallout might happen. She can’t promise a drama-free weekend and it’s killing her. Especially with her dad being so generous right now with Christen around.
“Oh, that wouldn’t have been a problem kiddo. Suppose you haven’t been out here much but there is a guest room. Usually, Devon uses it or Michaela, you know when they come in from the city. But it’s okay.” Jeff adds as he leads them into the living room where a football game is playing softly in the background.
“Jeff, honey, is that your daughter?” A woman’s voice asks from the kitchen and Tobin pales. She knew her dad was dating ever since the divorce but she hadn’t realized he would be even now. She can see her in the connected kitchen. Tall and blonde with a dimpled face. She’s drying some pans from their lunch.
“Yeah, and her partner Chris,” Jeff replies, walking up to the kitchen and kissing her softly. Tobin turns away, wanting to gag at the sight. She pulls Christen with her to sink into the couch. The brunette rubs her hand along Tobin’s knee in an effort to calm her.
“Well! Hi Tobin, Chris, I’m Georgia. I’m Jeff’s girlfriend, it’s so nice to finally meet ya!” The leggy blonde introduces herself to the girls while wiping her hands on her apron. “Hope you two enjoy yourselves out there. I’m making grilled salmon for dinner, something nice and lean for you two fit superstars!”
Christen makes nice, greeting her and thanking her for dinner in advance to make up for Tobin’s surly short responses. There are bits of pieces of Tobin around the house, but not as much in her mother’s home. A few framed photos of Jeff holding her at her first soccer match, her confirmation, and her holding her Olympic gold medal from 2008. Christen pauses, staring at them in wonder. It’s hard for her to picture the smiling girl in all these photos to be as hurt as Tobin has been.
“Ah, yup. You found little Toby.” Jeff says, slinging his arm around Christen’s shoulders. “She almost didn’t get to confirmation on time. Wouldn’t wear the white dress.”
“Here we go,” Tobin mumbles with disgruntlement, still ticked off about the new woman in Jeff’s life. And she knows it’s unreasonable considering that her parents split nearly 14 years ago but with the strain on their relationship, she had never seen him with anyone else.
Jeff clears his throat, pulling himself back to his full height at Tobin’s interruption. He starts walking, beckoning with his hand for them to follow.
“Come on, let’s get to my desk so we don’t disrupt Gigi in the kitchen.” He offers, stepping inside. Christen follows immediately but then stops and circles back around. She saw a photo from the corner of her eye and just had to look at it in full. It’s Tobin, tucked behind a photo of Jeff jr at prom and one of Katie at tennis champs. It’s her and Santos at the wedding. Christen’s eyes follow the way his hands are around her waist, and she has a forced smile. She has to physically break herself away from it, thinking about how much Tobin hurt after that night.
“Chris?” Tobin calls out gently from the doorframe. The younger woman straightens up and walks herself over to the study.
“Sorry,” Christen mumbles as she squeezes past Tobin’s lanky frame. “I thought it would just be you two.”
Jeff nods and sits down at his desk. He’s combing through manila folders before pulling out a formal-looking paper. Tobin walks over to the table, her hand runs along the smooth wood finish as she approaches her father.
“Right. So, uh let’s get started.” Jeff says with a bit of fluster to his voice. He holds out the document. “You know I’m retiring soon. And with that means my investment stake in the company will too retire. I’m leaving it all behind, and I don’t want to be managing investments from a beach with a Mai tai.”
Tobin raises an eyebrow at her father rather incredulously. If this was all he wanted to do, he would have just texted her. She knows his company’s assets would follow his retirement. There was something more to this. Christen stands next to Tobin with her hands clasped, wiggling her rings restlessly.
“Tobin, I’ve broken down my assets for each of you kids. It comes out to around 3 grand, for your piece. When I pass, they’ll become your assets. But before I add your name, I wanted to..well if you’ll let me,” Jeff propositions, holding a pen in his left hand and twirling it. “Put Christen on the paper. She’ll own the same assets as you, Toby. But only if you’re ready for this. I— I know it seems rushed but the paperwork for this truly takes decades with the number of hands it runs through…”
Tobin’s eyes are wide. Her jaw goes slack. She can’t believe she’s hearing her father right. Does he want them both on her declaration of ownership of his assets? She swallows thickly, looking to Christen who was equally surprised. Her hand reaches for her girlfriend’s warm one, squeezing gently to remove her nerves.
“Dad...of course, we’ll take it. Promise.” Tobin assures Jeff who is sitting up tall and proud. He’s grinning and fiddling with the cap of his pen.
“I uh hope that all that doesn’t get used for quite a few years yet but I’m glad I’m putting things into place here.” He adds as Tobin writes down the acknowledgment of transfer of assets. Christen is watching her girlfriend with a smile, seeing the way both parties are excited.
The day passes in a quiet sort of haze. Jeff brings Christen around the house to show her Tobin’s things if there were any. And then he leads them into the backyard —
“My hammock?! Dad, you kept it?” Tobin shouts as she steps outside into the cool wood covering the back deck. She sprints to the hammock sandwiched between two birch trees. It’s a little frayed on the ends from wear and tear.
“Oh yeah, I still uh spend days reading in it,” Jeff says offhandedly, watching how excited his daughter was. Christen watches the two interact from her own guarded distance. For whatever relationship she has with her own father, she knows it’s much less strained than Tobin’s.
“I loved this thing,” Tobin says as she sits on the edge and lets herself fall back into it in a childlike manner. As the hammock opens to let her lay back Tobin finds her mind transported to a younger time.
It’s a sticky summer in New Jersey and Tobin’s worn herself out with every sport imaginable on top of a mile run for conditioning. She wants to make the starting roster for the middle school team this year. But after so many shots on goal, you get exhausted.
She climbs into her hammock, book by her side as she lays back. There are still birds chirping and a slight balmy breeze whispering through the wilting birch trees of the backyard. There’s peace.
Here Tobin forgets the way that Caroline Beaker made her feel like her heart was in overdrive. Forgets how she was laughed at for her basketball shorts.
It’s here that her father playfully pushed the hammock to swing back and forth, startling Tobin from her dreamy peace. It’s here that he lined up the balls for another round of ‘superstar kicks’ and brought out extra popsicles from the garage freezer.
One night as the sunset and the stars became alive like twinkling crystals far far away, Tobin lay in her hammock with her legs dangling off the side. Jeff sits beside her, leaning back to point up at the constellations.
“There are so many stories in the world, Tobin. And your story will be up in those stars one day. Someday somehow. And whenever you feel lost? You see this bright star,” Jeff asks as he reaches Tobin’s arm out to point at it. “It’s the North Star kiddo. It guided those three Wisemen, and it will guide you home to where Christ will always be.”
The thing that Jeff didn’t know was that ever since that night Tobin had found herself looking at the North Star and finding it fading away from her, pushing this divide inside herself. It’s strange to think about it now as her strength in Christ has returned as has her confidence in sexuality.
“So Christen, it’s been a while since we last really talked,” Jeff starts up as he starts pulling out dishes for dinner later that night. “How’s life been with you and my kiddo?”
Christen isn’t surprised at the small talk Tobin had warned her about. The other woman is across the room, helping Gigi with the salmon basting.
“It has been a while. Uh, things are as good as they could be.” Christen answers awkwardly while sorting out plates for the four of them. “Tobin’s kind of been my rock lately with everything that happened to my family,”
Jeff sets down a fork on a napkin, raising his brow. It takes him a few minutes but then Christen sees the recognition behind his brown eyes. “Oh right, your mother. That must be hard, you know the parents are always friends. You two playing for the national team, and man we just hit it off, every game in those supported sections. Let Cody know I’m thinking about him.”
Christen takes a deep breath, not feeling up to recounting her mother’s death for this man. She brings the salt and pepper shakers to the table.
“Thank you. My dad definitely had fun with you in Paris at those golfing ranges. I’ll tell him to call you up one of these days.”
Jeff smiles at the notion as he grabs a set of plates. His worn hands shake a little as he carries the stack to the table, Christen’s eyes catch it but she says nothing. Jeff would ask for help if he needed it. Or he had Tobin’s annoyingly charming trait of being bullheaded and never asking for help.
“...she’s the only one who gets me, you know? Chris is awesome like that,” Tobin says in passing as she brings out a bowl of fresh sautéed vegetables for their meal. Gently she sets it on the table, squeezing Christen’s arm in passing before hustling back into the kitchen ready to grab the next bowl.
Christen beams at the comment, letting herself bask in the glow of it. Tobin seems to be genuinely getting along with Gigi which sounds promising. The dinner is finally served with the next round of dishes, letting Christen and Tobin sit down together.
“Babe, can you pass me the salt?” Christen nudges Tobin with her elbow, a warm smile plastered across her cheeks. Tobin passes the salt shake over with her right hand.
“So Toby do you still go to a church? Cause we're going on Sunday, obviously and your father wasn’t sure about the whole gay thing, even if you can come but we always do brunch after. ‘Corse you two could just meet us after.” Gigi just rips right into it, leaving the two women across the table blinking in shock. Tobin furrows her brow, setting her napkin down on her placemat. She swallows before fixing her eyes on her father.
“I go every Sunday to a church in Portland. Christen is spiritual but she comes a couple of times especially for Christmas or Easter.” Tobin states matter of factly before taking a bite of her salad. Christen takes a breath, focusing on Tobin’s hands she sees shaking. She gently holds them under the table, rubbing her thumb softly. It had been a loaded question from Gigi, one that Christen suspects wasn’t intentionally harmful. But it had definitely brought up feelings for Tobin.
“I view them as storytelling sessions of myths, it keeps me sane and I learn so much!” She chuckles, reaching over to grab some bread from their little basket. Gigi shakes her head, a bit surprised.
“Oh well, that’s nice dear,” The older woman comments, taking a bite of her salmon. Jeff clears his throat after a sip of wine.
“Maybe we could just meet up for brunch then?” He suggests as Tobin carefully sets down her fork. “Around 11? There is a really cute place on 7th and market if you—”
“Why can’t I go to your church,” Tobin speaks over her father, clenching her hands in Christen’s. She stands up, her frustration running in her head on a loop. “Why’d you even ask us about it?! Is there something wrong?”
Christen stands, her left hand resting on Tobin’s back. She can feel the energy radiating off her and desperately wishes that she could take it away. “ Tobs ,” she whispers, trying to keep her from making a rash decision.
“Well, you know some places here just are behind the times,” Jeff starts to speak, wiping his lips with a napkin. “Now Tobs, Gigi never said you couldn’t come. There’s no reason to get upset. I’m trying to apologize for my past, and in this past, I gave you a religious trauma or whatever my therapist said—”
“Whatever your therapist said! Are you kidding me!” Tobin shouts. She’s given up the control. Her nostrils are flared and her eyes have gone dark. Hands curled into fists. “Ever since that night where we were found in the closet, you’ve hated me. You’re hiding out here with a new girlfriend, going to a new church, and pretending that our family never existed!”
Jeff stands up at his daughter’s accusations, an identical face of anger and disappointment reflected across the table in Tobin. Gigi looks ready to cry.
“ Tobin .” Christen is firm, her hand pressing down into the small of Tobin’s back to try and ground her. She can feel the adrenaline pumping through her girlfriend and honestly, it scares her. She doesn’t quite know if she can hold her back entirely. She has never seen Tobin this close to losing it.
“ Chris .” Tobin grits out lowly with an equally firm voice. Her brown eyes are full of unshed tears. Tears of anger, disappointment, and memories of her father. She sniffles, pulling her chin up to stare at her father. Gigi cries out at the tension, getting up to refill her wine glass in the kitchen while they square off against each other. Tobin is taken back to that night in Rhode Island. She can hear the rattling of the large ice cubes against her father’s whiskey glass rolling back and forth in her head. The tip of Tobin’s tongue curls against the back of her front teeth, the taste of her own favorite whiskey floating through her senses and biting at her insecurities. Like father like daughter after all.
“I have never hated you, Tobin. I have never lied to you, and I won’t be starting now.” Jeff says. It sounds distant, garbled, and formal all at once. Tobin can’t swallow it for a second. She fails to keep down the broken scoff in response.
“You ended your marriage because you couldn’t handle that your daughter likes women.” Tobin watches Jeff’s eyes widen and he starts shaking his head. She laughs gleefully, her hands rising as she talks. “You really think I didn’t hear it. Dad, I heard you and mom that night in Rhode Island. Before you mysteriously walked out on us.”
Christen’s hand moves from Tobin’s back up to her shoulder, and she leans closer. She can not watch the woman she loves, blow up any chance she had at reviving her relationship with her father. But Christen also doesn’t know what to say. Should she intervene? Does Tobin need to be alone or could she be trusted alone?
“Heard what? What are you talking about Toby, I left your mom because we weren’t working out anymore-”
“Because she stood up for me. I’m not stupid. I eavesdropped a lot more than you think as a kid, and you couldn’t stand me after you found me with that girl. I fucking heard my own father talk about how embarrassed he was about going back to church, and how you don’t even know me anymore!”
The tears start to pour. Tobin can’t stop them any longer. She doesn’t want to at this point. Her throat is raw and scratchy, her eyes red and puffy. Christen instantly pulls her in closer, glaring at Jeff throughout the entire exchange. All she knows is that her girlfriend needs her support, and Jeff was hurting her again.
“It was a different time! We didn’t know how to deal with this, you were a child and-”
“Bullshit. You didn’t try to understand. And I didn’t need my sexuality to be dealt with, I needed a father who cared about me.” Tobin shakes her head, tucking herself into Christen’s arms. She’s getting her sweater wet but neither woman cares anymore. That’s when Christen makes an executive decision. She grabs her purse from the chair, nudging Tobin to start walking.
“I’m really sorry that we’re wasting this meal because it really was lovely. But we’re going to the hotel, and I don’t think that we’ll be seeing you for brunch on Sunday. Please, just you’ve done enough damage for one night.” Christen says as she slides Tobin’s coat on the crying woman.
Tobin is almost shaking at this point, blubbering about how she didn’t get to tell him everything and that they shouldn’t leave. Christen just walks her out, not taking a second glance out at Jeff.
Tobin kicks the potted plant on their way out to the sidewalk where they’ll call another uber. She watches as the painted pot from her childhood breaks into pieces of terracotta shards and laughs at it. She just laughs between the tears. Angry laughs. The laughs you hear when you know that someone’s soul has been broken. Tobin watches a memory of hers die and maybe it’s for the better.
They get across the street and Christen envelops her. “I am so sorry baby, I didn’t know-”
“I didn’t know that I would break like that. It’s stupid but I don’t want them in my life on their terms. Shi-t-ty fucking terms that--that erase me. Dad knows that I would go to church. They questioned it and said ‘the gay thing’ like I can’t believe in Christ. I know who I pray to, I know who guides my life. Christ is my savior, and he made me in his image. God makes no mistakes.” Tobin explains passionately as they wait for the car. She starts pacing back and forth with all her pent-up energy. Muttering to herself between bouts of tears.
“I know Tobs, I know. And they had no right to question you about that. We can talk more at the hotel babe--hey, come on,” Christen reaches out to hold Tobin’s hand and stop her pacing. “Just breathe with me?”
Tobin nods, following Christen’s slow breathing technique. She starts giggling midway through because Christen instructs her to plug one of her nostrils. Their uber pulls up closely after and Tobin turns around to watch them leave her father’s house. As the car drives away she can see a figure in the doorway get smaller and smaller.
Christen orders them greasy new york style pizza and they curl up under the hotel sheets while SportsCenter lulls Tobin to sleep. She’s wrapped up under the blankets with her head on Christen’s chest, arms around her middle. Christen glances down at her girlfriend, tracing the line of tried tears on her warm cheek with a sigh.
This was not what they wanted from this trip. Farthest from it. Though Christen knew it was a possibility she had really hoped that Tobin could not only hold Jeff accountable for what had happened but move them forward. It seemed like there was so much unsaid. The Heath family just didn’t communicate compared to her own. She hates seeing Tobin like this. The anger she had felt radiating off of her still spooked her heart. It was so unusual. She’s seen Tobin sad. Distraught. But never so angry.
Slowly Christen’s fingers thread through Tobin’s messy hair, comforting the exhausted woman who lets out a gentle noise at the feeling. Her other hand traces soothing patterns into Tobin’s back, feeling her slowly become boneless at the feathery sensations.
“I love you. I always will love you.” Christen mumbles against Tobin’s crown, breathing her in softly. Tonight taught her how much she hadn’t known about Tobin and her father. How Tobin blamed herself for the divorce, and how she was able to piece it together that it is why Tobin was afraid of her leaving. She wishes that she could prove it wasn’t true, but life doesn’t work like that.
“Always?” Tobin whispers against Christen’s chest, her ear full of Christen’s beating heart. Thuwump, Thuwump . Thuwump, Thuwump. Thuwump, Thuwump.
The older woman’s eyes finally slip shut into the darkness of sleep, leaving Christen pondering once more. She’s pondering a lot of things. Like if she should answer her text from Tyler asking how it’s going, or the group chat message from Pinoe asking how the trip home was for Tobin. Part of her wonders if Pinoe could help Tobin, knowing how hard it can be living with those uncomfortable or unwanting of who you are. It’s a thought that Christen bookmarks in her head for another time.
At the end between all of her winding thoughts, Christen chooses to text Cindy.
Cindy? Look, things didn’t go so well tonight. I don’t know if Tobin will reach out but I think she needs to talk to you about it. If that’s okay. Can you try to call us tomorrow? She’s exhausted and worn out right now. But she needs her mom.