Lost and Found: Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places

Laid off from his job at The New York Times, Frank Barry moves back to his childhood home in North Carolina, hoping to stretch his severance pay to cover the time he needs to write a book about the disappearance of his father. High school friend Susan Conrad, whose father also disappeared when she was a child, is already there, trying to recover from her third divorce. Frank and Susan decide to c

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3. Chapter 3

Lisa blistered him when he called her. “Frank, are you fucking nuts? You will go crazy. Hell, she’ll probably go crazy. No. She’s already crazy.”

Frank conceded everything. It was the only way to deal with his younger sister, who had left their native North Carolina for Los Angeles right after college to find a career in film and a husband. She’d found the first but not the last. Jeffrey imagined it was Lisa’s in-your-face personality, so unlike the rest of his family, so unlike North Carolina, that had made finding a husband impossible and finding a job in Hollywood easy. Maybe she was right about going back home. But he couldn’t ignore that ninety thousand dollars would go a lot farther in North Carolina than it would in Manhattan. He would need the time it bought him to write the book he’d fantasized. Certainly there would be long dinners with his mother, who wasn’t much given to small talk, and there would be chores to do. But his mother’s house was a big one. Frank was confident he could withdraw to one of the unused bedrooms upstairs and write in solitude.

In any case, the deal was almost done. The first person Frank called after his epiphany was his landlord, who readily agreed to a sublet. Frank had a friend moving back to New York from an overseas posting who wanted his apartment. All he had to do was pack and buy an airline ticket. He would say his goodbyes to New York friends via email when he got settled in North Carolina. And then, of course, he had to inform his mother.

It took nine rings before his mother answered the telephone. She had refused to connect the answering machine he’d given her one Christmas, more evidence, as if any were needed, that she wasn’t much for communicating. He guessed she was just returning from her fantasy walk, one of her idiosyncrasies.

“Well, it’s been a long time,” Julia said, characteristically salting her greeting with a rebuke.

“I know Mom. I’ve been crazy busy,” Frank lied. He wanted to remind her, as he had before, that telephone lines ran in both directions. But now wasn’t the time to start a fight.

Frank explained the firing, which he called a “layoff” to remove some of the sting. He said he wanted to come home for a while to work on a book. Julia was silent for so long that Frank thought he’d lost her.

“Mom?”

"I’m here,” she said. “You want to move back to Fayetteville, for a year?”

“Yeah. I’ll help out with the chores, and with the groceries.”

“Well, what a surprise,” Julia said, obviously buying time to think.

Then she said: “I think it’s a wonderful idea. Yes, it’s a wonderful idea. When can I expect you?”

“I was thinking I could get there next Tuesday,” Frank said.

“Next Tuesday?”

“Is that too soon?”

“No. No. Next Tuesday it is,” Julia said. “I’ll have your room ready.”

After she hung up, Frank wondered how she really felt. Getting his mother to express her feelings, he’d long ago learned, was impossible. Sometimes he wondered if she knew what she really felt. Lisa had elaborate theories about that. But then Lisa, while two years younger than Frank, had spent many more years in psychotherapy.

Frank sprawled on the sofa and stared at the water stain in the living room ceiling. It bore such a resemblance to the Crucifixion that Frank, a devout atheist, once had considered offering a photograph of it for sale on eBay to fleece those religious fundamentalists who had more money than sense. He never made so much as a dime off that crucifixion image, but it did help in another way. When Frank stared at the water stain and crossed his eyes, he could enter a meditative state that helped him put radical changes  —  like a move to North Carolina  — into a deeper perspective. There really was no reason to stay in New York. His friends would still be his friends, in this day of instant messages and texting and Facebook, no matter where he lived. It wasn’t as if Frank took advantage of the city’s cultural attractions. He was the only gay man he knew who hated Broadway theatre. He only visited museums with friends from out of town. He was embarrassed to admit he didn’t understand opera or classical music.  His idea of an evening of fun was a dinner out followed by reruns of Law and Order or old British sitcoms. And if North Carolina didn’t work out, however he defined that, he could always return.

Frank realized his real worry was whether he could write the book, something he’d put off for years, with work as an excuse. Writing didn’t scare him. He’d turned out stories short and long as a journalist. What was difficult was the subject — his father’s disappearance. That was something Frank had never been able to reconcile. He’d tried therapy, but finally decided that the twenty-dollar insurance co-pay was better spent on brunch for all the insight he achieved. He’d hoped one day the pain would just go away of its own accord. But Frank still remembered so clearly that summer morning when he was snatched suddenly from sleep-away camp, all of six years old, and got home to find his mother alone at the kitchen table. Daddy wasn’t there, she told him, and he wouldn’t be coming back. Laconic as always, she didn’t explain. She just told him his father loved him, and then she cried. Frank felt his heart break, an almost physical feeling that left him vaguely nauseous and gasping for breath and oddly unable to cry.

Frank had never imagined a world without his father, the man who only a week before had ran alongside him, using his right hand to steady Frank on a wobbling new bike. He remembered how his father had hugged him when Frank cried at the sting of a baseball landing in his catcher’s mitt. He loved how his father patiently read aloud Frank’s favorite Nancy Drew mysteries after it became clear that Frank favored them over the Hardy Boys. Now Frank’s world had collapsed as quickly as the houses he loved to build with his father’s playing cards. At six he learned a lesson he never forgot: Nothing is certain, no one can be counted on.

Confronting his feelings about his father wasn’t the only challenge; what Frank knew about Jeffrey Barry was pretty much nil. He’d heard and rejected the hurtful theories of schoolmates: His father had left for another woman; he was on the lam from the law; he was long dead and buried in some far away place. Frank needed his father to be someone he could admire. He needed him to be alive. He couldn’t expect help from his mother, who still sank into silent sadness when either Lisa or Frank raised the subject. Frank also worried that no one would publish the book once he finished it. At fifty-seven, he couldn’t afford to waste a year the way he had when he turned twenty-one and waited tables by day and played at writing a novel at night. He might have, what? Twenty years left? Fifteen? Ten? The book would have to worth one of them.

It was hot, and his perspiration made Frank’s body stick to the leather sofa. He rolled off of it and onto his feet. For better or worse, his mind was made up. He was heading home.

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