His first ten days of life, he only knew a doctor’s latex touch. Preemie. Such a cruel word for such a cute boy. I needed to rub my cheeks on his. I nuzzled up to him. For a moment his warmth reached beyond his five pounds. But he jerked his head in the unshaven direction of my cheek and filled our apartment with tearless cries. Oh, Alexander.
“What unshaven direction?” Mom asked that evening when I brewed coffee in preparation for another upright night of soothing.
“Against the grain,” I answered.
“Why aren’t you shaving against the grain?”
“You’re not supposed to.”
“Who in the world told you that?” Mom asked.
As soon as I had the thought, she knew. Her eyes adopted the enervated daze they wore when she decided a few weeks ago that he would move out of her house. Weeks became our default measurement. How many weeks pregnant? How many weeks old? How many weeks until he leaves? All recent histories scribbled seven days at a time.
Stepdad hadn’t met Alexander. I wanted to invite him over for coffee from my French Press—a true friend after a sexless night. He had introduced me to coffee soon after shaving. Stepdad and I didn’t even share a hair color. Yet, he had held my adolescent cheek like I now held my infant son’s dewdrop face. Pungent coffee darkened his words, “Never shave against the grain.”
Stepdad gulped the instant stuff every morning, even Sunday. Sugar or cream? A sign of weak taste buds. He wouldn’t order espresso (expensive) or buy grounds (slow). Once, in the back of a rarely opened kitchen drawer, we found a dull, copper Turkish coffee pot. His voice had perked up as he described the process of preparing the real stuff. We never made a cup.
We were down to his last week at Mom’s house. What role would he play in our lives? I called, but couldn’t sustain a thought across Alexander’s colicky cries. I visited him after work, but his marathon commute left a narrow window for conversation. The weekend? Mom ran a garage sale where he sold his things and refused to pocket a buck. I insisted he stop by after.
“I didn’t want to wake him up,” Stepdad said at our door. I hadn’t even implied why he hadn’t met Alexander.
“He sleeps. He wakes. We make do with the cracks in between,” I said.
Alexander nestled in my wife’s arms as she rocked him to sleep. I motioned Stepdad in, but he remained smiling in the bedroom doorframe, like he already wasn’t allowed into this next part of our lives. We left my wife and son to rest without a whisper.
In the kitchen, I lifted the empty French Press. “Coffee?”
“Thanks, but only in the morning for me,” Stepdad said.
“C’mon, when else will I make you a cup?”
The question drowned in the water filling my kettle.
I ground four scoops of a blend of three Central American beans. My water thermometer read a precise 200 degrees Fahrenheit. Two and a half cups of water and four minutes later, I plunged the shiny metal filter, separating the grounds from our drink. I filled his mug and saved the second half—with any lingering bitterness—for mine. He took a sip.
“Not bad. But worth the ten minutes of prep?”
“Is that your philosophy of shaving too? Instant’s good enough, right?” I gulped my delicious coffee.
“Shaving? Who said anything about shaving?”
My eyes shot up from my mug. “Do you know how embarrassed I am? I’m a father who can’t even shave. Why did you tell me to never go against the grain?”
Stepdad grinned and put his mug down by mine. He squeezed my cheek the way no one likes.
“You were young, your hair still soft, you didn’t need a perfect shave. If the blade flew in every direction, you’d be a bleedin’ peach.”
This story originally appeared in KYSO Flash.