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Archive for October, 2005

“Hello?”

“Hello, Henry. It’s Lucy. Can I speak with the kids?”

“Sure, just a sec. Jason? Your mom is calling.”

Our typical exchange. A handful of words, the bare minimum necessary for Lucy to convey what she wants, and for me to meet her request.

Anyone else answering the phone would have received a more loquacious greeting, replete with “how are yous?” and “how’s the weathers?”

I don’t warrant such niceties. I am merely an obstacle, the thing that stands between my ex and a conversation with our children. Her tone made clear her regret I was the person closest to the phone when it rang.

She did not acknowledge the date. My parents had not mentioned it either, if they even noticed. I certainly wasn’t going to bring it up.

That day, one of the last of my visit back home, was our wedding anniversary. It was the fourteenth since the big day, and the second to pass since we separated.

For two years, we have been suspended in this limbo, no longer husband and wife, not yet divorced. And in each of those years, the calendar has thrust this date into our faces like a cruel insult.

Or into my face, at least. Lucy scarcely noted anniversaries when we were together. Perhaps they don’t haunt her now.

For me, it will be a while before this is a day like any other.

My wife was never one for sentiment. Indeed, her aversion to sentiment was a hallmark of our wedding ceremony.

We came to be engaged at her suggestion. We had been living together for about year when she allowed that if I proposed, she would not refuse.

I can take a hint. But, as she knew, I had a young anarchist’s distrust of the institution. Why should we seek state sanction for our love, I asked?

Because I prefer it, she answered.

But its just paper, a contract, I argued. Why not trust in one another? Why accept the rules of matrimony, the ideal of lifelong monogamy, when they seem so contrary to human nature?

Because I prefer it, she answered.

So it was that one evening, in a tavern, I proposed. I gave her a ring my mother had passed on to me. Lucy cried. She lost her breath. She threw the ring at me, saying she was “not worthy” of me. She ran to the street.

I picked up the ring. I followed her to the street. I put the ring on her finger. “I love you,” I said. “I am yours. Please, marry me.”

She nodded. She cried as she held me tight, as if I would evaporate if she let me go.

We set a date.

Marriage ceased to be abstract, something I supposed I would do some day, when I grew up. Now, at twenty-six, I was grown up. I was engaged to the woman I loved. We were entering into a sanctioned union.

We planned the wedding.

Of course, it would be a civil ceremony. My faith as an agnostic Methodist was no match for her firm convictions as an atheist. Her mother offered us the use of her home, a lovely Cape Cod situated on a bay in Long Island, for the wedding ceremony.

We accepted. Lucy and her mother began the time-honored tradition of mothers and daughters arguing over wedding details.

It was decided that the ceremony was to be performed by a local ferryboat captain.

“Do you want to say anything during the ceremony?” he asked us one afternoon as he guided his ferry across the bay.

“No,” Lucy said, looking at me. “We want the ceremony as short as you can make it.”

“We can do it in about, oh, five lines, if that’s what you want.”

“That’s what we want. Right, Henry?”

“Right,” I nodded, taking her newly expressed opinion as my own. “Four lines if you can manage it.”

My family was surprised that Lucy intended to keep her last name. “She’s the end of the line,” I explained. “I’m one of four boys. Our lineage is secure. She’s got one brother, and he’s gay. So she is keeping her name.”

They thought it odd that she rented her wedding gown. “Don’t be superstitious,” I chided. “Why buy a dress she will wear once?”

To me, these things made sense. Lucy’s decisions were consistent with her independence of mind, which I treasured. They also reflected her ambivalence about the ceremony, which I shared.

Still, there were some traditions we kept. I did not see Lucy in her gown until shortly before the ceremony.

“You are a stone cold fox,” I smiled, kissing her.

She looked so beautiful.

Lucy prefers her hair short, but knew that I liked it long. For her new husband, she grew her hair so that it flowed over her shoulders.

She had chosen an antique gown, in ivory white, with petticoats and layers of lace. Her smile radiated from her warm olive complexion. Her almond eyes sparkled.

“I’m so sorry about this,” she whispered, fingering the gash on my forehead.

“It’s okay,” I winced. “Looks much worse than it feels.”

“Has anyone noticed?” she asked, looking about.

“Everyone has noticed. But it’s okay.”

Following the reception on the previous evening, Lucy had stormed away from me, shouting obscenities as she hurled herself into the middle of a quiet street.

It was well after midnight. She was drunk. We both were.

She was scared to death. We both were.

“Shhh, shhh,” I shushed, running after her. “Please, don’t walk away.”

“I hate you! I hate you!” she screamed. “There is no way I am marrying you tomorrow, none!”

“Lucy, Lucy, please. Everyone is here. My family and friends are here. Your family is here. We love each other. We have to get married tomorrow. For us. For them!”

“What, I have to get married because your family got on a fucking plane? I don’t have to do anything!”

“Look,” I said, my anger rising over my dread of being overheard. “We are getting married tomorrow. That’s it. It’s settled.”

“I fucking HATE YOU!” she shouted, lashing at me. Her newly filed nails clawed into my face.

“Fuck!” I grabbed my head. I pulled back my hands and saw blood. “Oh, shit . . .”

“Oh my god,” Lucy gasped, shaking her hands like things she could no longer control. “I have to go. I have to go.” She ran down the street, away from her mother’s home, where we were to sleep that night.

“Don’t follow me!” she called back.

I looked at my bloody fingers, and wiped the mess coagulating on my eyebrow.

I had to take care of her.

I had to disguise this outburst. No one should know.

I was bleeding. How do I fix this?

I abandoned the reception party and headed to my future mother in law’s home. No one was there. I could sneak in and clean up the wound. Maybe it would look better in the morning.

I awoke alone. The pillow was streaked with blood. I washed my face and went downstairs to join in the wedding preparations. I had to be normal.

“Good morning,” Lucy’s brother Richard said as I approached him on the lawn. “Did you enjoy the . . . good Lord, what happened to your face?”

“Uh, nothing, just, you know. Say, have you seen Lucy?”

“You mean she’s not in your room?”

“No, and I’d like to find her quietly, okay?”

“I’ll find her,” he said. He understood. “You just try to, I don’t know, just avoid Mother until we find her.” That was good advice.

I visited my family. My mother expressed alarm at my scratched face. “Lucy did this to you, didn’t she?”

“Mom, please. She’s anxious. It’s a big deal. The wedding, I mean, not the scratch. It doesn’t hurt.”

“Sit on the bed,” she ordered, examining the wound. “Hmm. I don’t think you need stitches . . .”

“Mom, please,” I batted her hands. “I don’t need stitches. It’s a scratch. Anyway, I have to go. I have to help with the set up. I’ll see you at six, okay?”

She hugged me as I stood.

“I have to go, Mom.”

“I know,” she stroked my hair. “Just . . . don’t let her hit you again.”

“She won’t, Mom. Geez.”

When Lucy left me standing on the street, she ran to the house a friend was renting for the wedding. I had invited dozens of friends, and most had accepted.

Lucy invited very few friends, but this one in particular. Of course, she took Lucy in. She sat up with Lucy, calming her down.

The next morning, she woke Lucy and called her sister. Together, they did Lucy’s hair and make up—she was clueless about these things—and helped her into her gown.

They made her into a bride. I think Lucy was as surprised as anyone to see how ravishing she looked.

How much I loved her.

I put on my suit. I pinned a boutonniere into my lapel, then into the lapels of my father, brothers and future brothers-in-law, Richard and his partner.

My former professor, Whitman, was on hand to serve as my best man. I reserved flowers for his lapel and that of his partner.

A bus pulled up in front of the house, discharging my past. My friends from high school, from college, from work.

I hugged Allan. He told me I looked great in my suit. I thanked him for not wearing shorts, and took a swig from his flask.

“Man, I got to tell you, Lucy is really, really pretty.”

“That’s kind,” I said, swallowing his bourbon. “I mean, considering she is the only girlfriend of mine you haven’t fucked.”

“Henry, I am shocked, shocked,” he began, his mouth dropping. “But, you know . . .”

“I know, its true.” I handed the flask to my brother and greeted more arrivals.

Marcus was there, with his new wife.

Debra sat with Donnie, who was, by this time, so thin he was swallowed by his suit.

Guini was there, in a skirt so short my mother felt compelled to tug down the hem. (Later that night, my little brother Lee would feel compelled to lift her hem with his face.)

Everyone mingled, all these parts of my life coming together.

And I realized that with the exception of people sharing my last name or that of my bride, I had pretty much slept with all the wedding guests. It was time for me to settle down.

The ceremony was over fast. Whitman clocked it at under two minutes. We exchanged rings, we signed a paper, and we kissed.

Just like that, we were married.

“I love you,” she said. “Thanks for marrying me.”

“Thank you for accepting my proposal. I’ll love you forever.”

The wind was coming strong from the bay, anticipating the arrival of Hurricane Bob a few days later. It whipped everyone’s hair and clothes; as the drinks settled in, it blew away inhibitions.

We had hired a stomping swing band. In photographs from that night, everyone is contorted, windswept, dancing, laughing.

Everyone agreed: there has never been a better party, before or since.

My friends paired off as they stumbled back to their hotel rooms, or boarded the bus back to the city. The driver covered the sounds of kissing with a Marvin Gaye soundtrack.

That night, everybody got laid.

Well, almost everybody.

With the departure of our guests, Lucy decided we would not sleep at her mom’s house as planned. We loaded the wedding gifts into a car and drove, drunk as can be, to her friend’s house.

Over my objection, Lucy opened all the gifts that night as I tried, hopelessly, to match names to items.

We fell asleep on a couch as the sun rose, my wife in my arms.

Four days into the honeymoon, we made love for the first time as a married couple. I videotaped her afterwards, laying on the bed, still flush from sex, her slip pulled up over her belly. She laughed into my camera, “Now you have evidence that we had sex on our honeymoon.”

I laughed, though the comment made me rather sad.

A month after returning from the honeymoon, we were in couple’s therapy.

We would see our therapist every week for two years, until the birth of our first child.

We’d return to therapy many times afterward.

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What a tender kiss he has, I thought.

Verdad and I were making out at a party. I ran my hand up his nude arm to his shoulders, then to his smooth cheeks. His soft skin sparked my fingertips. I traced a lazy finger along his forehead, his brow, his aquiline nose.

My touch returned to his cheek, only now it felt scruffy and unshaven, the cut of his jaw more angular and manly. I pulled back to look at him. It wasn’t Verdad.

Whoever it was, he smiled.

“You know,” I said, looking away. “This is a little awkward, but I don’t recall your name. Your face is very familiar, though.”

“You don’t know me, huh? Look closer.”

I looked.

“Anything?” he shrugged.

“Nothing. I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay. Here, try this.” He joined his thumbs and forefingers into circles, and turned his hands upside down on his face, mimicking glasses.

His image came into focus for me.

“Oh God, of course,” I slapped my cheek. “You’re Elvis Costello.”

“Yeah,” he grinned, pointing to his eyes. “Contacts. No one notices me. Anyway, it’s Declan—nice to meet you.” He extended a hand.

“Likewise,” I said, taking his hand. “I’m a big fan.”

“Well, thanks. I’m a big fan of those kisses.” He tugged my hand, pulling me closer. “Give us more.”

His lips touched mine, and my chest heaved. It was like the weight of a thousand butterflies landing on my heart.

That, or the weight of an eight-year-old boy.

“Daddy, Daddy!” Collie jumped on my body. “Time to get up-py, up-py!”

“What? What time is it?”

“Breakfast time, breakfast time! Wakey wakey!”

Where the . . . oh yeah. My room at the lake house.

“Okay baby, you can go tell Papa I’m up.”

“You’re not up up.”

“I will be, I just have to get dressed. Go. I’m coming.”

“Okay, I’ll be back if you fall asleep.” He trotted out, leaving the door ajar in his wake.

I fell back on my pillows. Two weeks without sex were taking a toll. These dreams were insane.

Two weeks. Huh. I rubbed my eyes. When I was married, I could take month after sexless month with nary a blink. Guess I am out of shape.

I dropped my feet to the floor and pulled up my shorts, stooping to adjust myself to the least conspicuous position. I pulled on a t-shirt that dropped to cover my hips.

“Well, well!” Dad called from the griddle. “Great day in the morning! Is this an official sighting of my wonnerful, wonnerful son, Hanklin?”

“I’m afraid so,” I shuffled past, hugging him. “It won’t get much prettier than this.”

“Did you sleep well, honey?” Nanny smiled, slipping her hands around my waist. I turned my hip to her—or rather, turned away my still-aching groin—and kissed the top of her head.

“Very well. A little too deeply. You?”

“Well,” she said, squeezing me. “At my age, if you wake up at all, that’s a good night’s sleep.”

I kissed her again. “This may be the last sunrise you see, old woman, if you don’t get out from between me and my coffee.”

My kids were seated at the table, eating bacon, eggs, grits, biscuits and fresh peach slices. I poured my coffee, streamed in half and half and sugar, and sat thickly next to Jason. We exchanged glances.

“You’re up early,” I said.

“You’re up early,” he deadpanned.

“Yeah, but you look like death.”

“Yeah, but you look like death.”

“Stop copying me.”

“Stop copying me.”

I sipped my coffee, smacking loudly.

“Ah reet, ah right, that’s good java, daddy-o,” I said in my best Wolfman Jack impersonation

He coughed into his juice.

“Too easy,” I said, returning to my cup. “Even at this hour, I still got it.”

“You can keep it,” Jason retorted. He paused a beat, trying not to lose the rhythm before delivering his zinger: “At least I got my hair.” He and Collie burst into laughs.

I put down my cup, aghast, and punched his arm. He punched me in reply.

“Do I have to separate you?” Dad asked, delivering my serving. “’Cause I will, right down the middle.” He bonked a fork on my head before setting it next to my plate.

When Dad was home, the vacation was much easier. He would wake early and find Nanny on the porch, where she had watched the sunrise. After a cup of coffee and quiet conversation, they would go to the kitchen and pull out the griddle. From their beds, the kids would smell bacon and follow the scent into the kitchen, like cartoon hound dogs sniffing wavy lines in the air to their source in a rabbit warren.

No alarms, no wake up calls.

I was allowed to sleep for so long as the kids let me. It was never very late, but there is nothing better than waking to the sight of children eating a breakfast you didn’t have to cook.

After we ate, Dad went to prepare the boat for the day while Nanny washed dishes and the kids watched television. I took my coffee to the computer to check email, generally a fixture of my morning routine.

I wasn’t sure how much time I would have.

Sure enough, the familiar squeaks and squawks of the dial-up connection proved as great a lure to some bloodhounds as the smell of bacon had been to others.

I was quickly reading and responding to a few notes when Mom came downstairs, holding her new Maltese puppy. “Good morning!” she beamed at the children.

“Good morning,” Collie replied on behalf of himself and his sister, neither of whom diverted their eyes from Spongebob Squarepants.

“Well, look who decided to get out of bed,” Nanny teased, with more than a hint of malice.

“Good morning, Mother. Any eggs left?”

“Well, I guess I can put some on. I was just cleaning up . . . ”

“Why, thank you, that would be nice.”

Jason was clearing his plate and passed by the computer. “Wow Dad, you got eight hundred and eighty two messages!”

“Yeah, a lot, right?”

I was reading an email from Luis.

Hey Henry,

How’s it going, sweetheart? I’m seeing Jen tonight. Any chance we can meet you at your place?

Luis

I had just hit reply and typed a few words—“I’m out of town until next week”—when Mom flew across the room, as though her curiosity had sprouted wings.

“Somebody wants to say good morning to you, TJ!” She shoved the puppy’s snout in my face.

As I recoiled, I saw Mom sneak a glance at the computer screen. She had used the dog as a diversionary tactic to spy on me.

“Your dog is very cute,” I said, pushing it back. “And very nosy.”

“You working or writing one of your friends?”

“Yes.”

“Well, who are you telling you are out of town?”

“Mom . . . please.” I closed the laptop cover. “I don’t listen to your phone conversations. Don’t read my emails. Please.”

“I don’t know what’s so damned interesting,” she said, pulling her dog close. “But I can take a hint.”

“Here’s the hint again, Mom, in neon: mind your own business.”

“How do you want your eggs?” Nanny called.

“Scrambled is fine,” Mom replied, on her way to the kitchen. “Y’all got cheese?”

I signed off, leaving unread the bulk of my emails. I took my coffee and left to retrieve the children’s swimsuits.

My father raised comedians. My mother raised privacy advocates. My adolescence was filled with her intrusions.

“Mom, I can hear you breathing. Can you hang up the extension? Mom? Okay, look, I’ll talk to you tomorrow at school—my Mom won’t hang up.”

“Mom, do you need the bathroom? I see your shoes under the door. I’ll be right out.”

Now, in retrospect, she claims to have acted from love. It’s a parent’s duty, she argues, to be on top of what her children are doing.

“You didn’t know when I took your car for a joy ride,” Jesse teases.

“I stole so many of your cigarettes,” Lee laughs.

“I’m still shooting up,” I add, scratching my arm.

“You using that good shit I sold you?” Frank asks.

We know better. She had never heard the phrase “tough love” when she started prying in our things. She was just nosey by nature. Her sons were generally good at hiding the evidence. But sometimes we slipped.

I remember waking from a nap one afternoon during my senior year of high school to discover Mom in my room, reading a torrid mash note from a girlfriend of mine. I had fucked this girl, but good, and she was begging for more in very explicit terms.

Mom knew this girl was black. She was shocked.

“Mom, what are you doing?”

She crumbled the note. “You . . . you can do much better,” she managed, before leaving the room.

“You should leave that note. Mom? Mom! That’s my note!”

My diploma was still warm in my hands when I moved out of the house.

(And if you think I’m a rake now, you should’ve visited my bachelor pad at age eighteen.)

No surprise, then, that I never felt the compulsion to come out to my family about my bisexuality. That was mine and none of their beeswax. It’s an open secret, nothing more.

I had told my future wife that I was bisexual when we began to get serious—that was her beeswax, after all—but throughout our relationship, she never knew my ATM or email passwords.

It wasn’t as though I had secrets to protect; we shared a bank account and I was generally content with fidelity. I just needed some measure of privacy. If she wanted to know about private matters, I preferred that she ask me, rather than take it onto herself to open my accounts. For fifteen years, that was largely a matter of principle.

It proved prescient when my ex wanted some reason to dump me, and searched everywhere for the presumably hidden weapons of mass destruction that would support her foregone conclusion that war was justified.

It may seem odd that a blogger should feel so strongly about privacy. I mean, no one has forced me to detail my life so intimately as I do. And yet I do so with a great concern for being as honest and direct as possible.

Because while I value privacy, I also value honesty. These things should not be contradictory.

I enjoy living a life that is open and welcoming. I treasure the people who appreciate that openness without prying and tugging for more than I offer. Not surprisingly, perhaps, I can trust them enough to open still further.

Pity those who just can’t resist the temptation to rummage through my medicine cabinet or dig for gossip juicier than that I so willingly offer. They risk finding themselves tossed unceremoniously to the curb.

Prying eyes followed me through adolescence, and through my marriage.

Hopefully, I am free of that now.

On this trip home, I took care to dump the cache when reading news or email on the family computer. I used a secure laptop to write or check blogs, using every password protection I knew.

I’m all grown up, and still worried about Mom digging in my business. Because, sad to say, she still does. I long ago developed strategies to create privacy in a den of spies.

When the sex dreams got too bizarre and I needed a moment alone, I reverted to the tried and true refuge of my adolescence and marriage.

Me and Rosie Palms in my fortress of solitude.

“Mom? Dad? I’m in the shower if anyone needs me.”

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That night, after my talk with the teenagers, the sex dreams took a turn for the incestuous.

Following our afternoon on the boat, Lynn’s boyfriend had broken up with her via telephone. Lynn made a tearful call to break this news to her mother, my brother Jesse’s ex wife Teri.

This got me to thinking about Teri. I realized I had not seen in her in a couple of years.

My subconscious took hold of that realization. I would see Teri that very night.

In appearance, Lynn and her brother are perfect amalgams of their parents’ combined traits. Both parents are attractive, blonde, blue-eyed, with glowing smiles.

Their children share that description, but for one additional factor. In marrying Teri, Jesse had added several inches to the gene pool. She is around six feet tall, as are the kids. My brother Jesse, at five foot seven or so, is dwarfed by his ex and their children—an amusing detail in any family photograph.

My brother and his wife broke up a decade ago when she decided that she was a lesbian.

This came as a great surprise. At the time, Jesse and Teri had two young children and a new house.

My brother was distraught. Are you sure? he asked. Can’t we work something out? Maybe you can be a lesbian without divorcing me? Shouldn’t we stay together for the kids?

What else could he say? Divorce and homosexuality are equally alien in our family. All we know is that families stay together, no matter what.

It wasn’t possible, Teri said. She was already in love with someone else—a woman.

My parents were equally distraught. I might even venture that my mother’s distress surpassed even that of her son Jesse, arguably the person more affected by Teri’s decision.

To their great credit, though, my parents made it clear to Teri that that they loved her no matter what. Divorce or no divorce, she was still their daughter. She was still family.

(This by contrast to Teri’s own parents, self-styled sophisticates who told Teri to clear out her childhood bedroom in their home, as they no longer had a daughter.)

Mom called me with the news. I was stunned and felt terrible for Jesse and the kids, not to mention my mother, who could barely talk about it without crying. I hated what this was doing to my family.

But, I said, if this is what Teri wants, then that is the way it is.

How can you say that? my mother asked. They have children! What about their responsibilities to them?

I know, I replied, but what is the alternative? If she’s gay, she’s gay. She can’t stay married and pretend otherwise. I’m sure they will continue to meet their obligations in a new family arrangement.

Besides, I went on to say, it was very brave of Teri to come forward with this revelation. Coming out is very difficult, particularly given her family’s reaction. I felt compelled to support that. In fact, I was happy for her.

Mom hung up on me. Perhaps I had gone too far.

Teri’s girlfriend left her not long after the divorce was finalized. Teri told Jesse she had made a terrible mistake and asked him to take her back.

It’s too late, he said. He was already engaged to someone else.

Since then, Teri has dated a string of men. None has quite stuck.

Naturally, this family history has been much in mind since the end of my marriage. Mine was the second divorce in my family, and my marriage was also ended at the wife’s behest.

“She’s going to regret this,” Mom says of my ex, “Just like Teri did.”

“Maybe so,” I say. “And if so, just as in that case, it will be too late.”

Mom nods. “Good. You can do better.”

The conversation with my niece and nephew must have brought those thoughts home. Thoughts of Teri brought her into my dreams.

I suppose that if I were going to have sex dreams with a family member, it was commendable that my subconscious had the decency to switch dials from my niece and nephew to their mother.

In the dream, I was giving Teri a tour of a house my parents had recently purchased. It was large, ancient and utterly devoid of furniture. “Kind of drafty,” Teri said, shivering.

“If you are cold, I can show you a little secret to this house,” I said. “But you have to keep it between us.”

“Oh, I’m curious,” she smiled. “Show me.”

“You promise to keep it secret?”

“I do.”

I bit my lip. “Okay then, follow me.” I led her into the butler’s pantry and opened a closet door. “This way,” I said, reaching for her hand.

We descended a dark staircase, entering a sauna. “Hey, that’s a nice surprise,” she said.

“Isn’t it? I love a sauna.”

I opened the door and led her into the steam. When my vision adjusted, I could see that the sauna was full of nude men. Some were touching one another. All noticed us standing there, fully clothed.

“Oh!” Teri exclaimed, her hand rising to her mouth.

“I’m sorry,” I said quietly. “This must be men’s day. Come on, let’s go this way.”

I led Teri into a room with plastic mats on the floor. I recognized it as a swinger club.

I only vaguely recollect the rest of the dream. It had to do with me fending off advances from entreating couples as I led Teri in search of the staircase upstairs.

I awoke and lay in bed, wondering at the occasional transparence of dreams.

Teri, so far as I know, is the only other member of my birth family to have any experience with bisexuality. Yet our experiences are so different that there is no reason for me to expect that she would understand my current life better than any other family member.

That following evening, we took Lynn back to her mother’s house. Teri came out to say hello to me and my kids. I stepped out of the car to hug her neck.

“Well, you look great,” she said, pulling me close. “You’re getting some sun.”

“Why thank you, I feel pretty. And you look as lovely as ever!”

“No, no, I’m fat! Look at me”

“Nonsense, you are wasting away, you scrawny thing,”” I said. “You need to get some meat on those bones. Now come over here and say hey to the kids.”

It felt familiar to indulge in this exchange, so common among reuniting Southerners.

Teri leaned into the car and cooed at each of my children in turn. Lynn reminded the kids that this was her mother. Teri reached around the car seats to hug my Mom and Dad.

“My goodness,” she said, standing to face me. “Your babies are so big! I feel so old.”

“Tell me,” I replied, my arm on Lynn’s shoulder. “I’ve been hanging out with this one, you know.”

We talked about our growing children for a bit before my kids grew restless. “We should get going to eat,” Mom called.

I kissed Lynn’s cheek and stepped forward to hug Teri goodbye.

“Keep in touch,” she whispered into my ear. “We’re still family, you know.”

I buried my face in her hair and kissed her neck. “Bye, Sis.”

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“Dad! Hey Dad, look at this!”

I was lugging an ice chest down to the pier. Lillie was beside me in her bikini, her hair tied back, taking each of the fifty-three steps one at a time.

“I’m looking Collie. What are you doing?”

“I’m casting off! See, watch.”

I stood and watched as he swung his pole and stopped with a jerk, sending the line sailing across the water.

“Nice form, son!”

“He’s been practicing to show you,” Dad called from the shade of the docked pontoon boat, where he was slathering Jason in sunscreen. Nanny sat nearby, putting lotion on her face and hands, the only exposed parts of her body.

My children have only ever fished from this pier, and only under my Dad’s guidance. He now had Collie practicing with weights tied to his line, killing time until we took the boat out to the marina to buy gas and bait.

The afternoon’s main festivities would begin later with the arrival of Lynn, my fifteen-year-old niece.

With everyone lotioned and situated on the boat, I tied off and Dad backed the boat away of the dock. I hopped aboard.

Lillie sat next to Dad, holding the wheel. Once we cleared the slip, he picked up speed and reached down to flip on the satellite radio.

Basstrackers, bayliners and a party barge
Strung together like a floating trailer park . . .

“Party on!” he grinned.

“Let the party continue!” Lillie giggled, completing Dad’s familiar slogan.

At the marina, the kids ran inside to choose candy—Dad’s bonus on every trip was that everyone had a choice of candy—while Dad gassed the boat and chatted with the woman who ran the place.

“Howdy, howdy! Good morning!”

“Well, good morning to you, sir. Looks like a warm one.”

“We don’t care nothing about that, because we are too cool.”

She laughed. “I can see that.”

“Help me remember, before we go we need to get some bait so the kids can go after some catfish.”

“Catfish? Well, I got bait, but you know how catfish love them Catawba worms?”

“Sure I do.”

“Well, I got a bush that is eat up with those things. Why don’t you just take a bag full?”

“Now bless your heart, that’s just what we’ll do.”

With the boat full and the kids eating candy, we made our barefooted way across the gravel loading dock.

“This bush was full of leaves just last week,” she said. “Now look at it.”

The bush was little more than a thick cluster of sticks covered in juicy fat worms.

“This is going to make some catfish very happy,” Dad said, plucking the worms one by one and dropping each into a paper bag.

“Do the catfish really like them, Papa?” Collie asked.

“This here is catfish candy,” he smiled.

“Eww.”

Back at the pier, Dad hooked bits of Catawba worm for each of the kids.

Jason studied his line carefully, bobbing his pole to create the illusion of his worm swimming in the current.

Collie tossed his line again and again, checking frequently to be sure his bait was intact.

Lillie grew bored and rested her pole on a chair.

Yet even with these different approaches, they each did well.

Collie led the pack. He caught a catfish, two blue gills and one turtle—never mind the branch he brought up from the lake bottom. After much admiration, each was cut loose and set back.

“Just not big enough,” Dad would say as he pried the hook from the catch. “Let’s let it grow some more and catch it again next summer.”

The kids would watch as each fish swam away.

All were quiet when Collie yelped.

“I got one, Papa, I got one.”

“Take your time,” Dad said, hurrying to his side. “Bring it in and let’s see what you got.”

Collie reeled the line while Dad held it steady. Together, they pulled up a very big catfish.

“Whoa!” Jason admired.

Collie laughed, excited.

“That’s pretty big, fella!” I cheered.

“Can I keep him, Papa?” Collie asked my Dad.

Dad lowered the fish to the pier, holding it carefully in place under his sandle. He studied it for a moment.

“Tell you what,” he admitted. “That there is a keeper.”

“Yeah!” Collie shouted.

“You aren’t going to let him go?” Lillie worried.

“No ma’am. We are going to put him in his own tank.” Dad looked at me and pointed to the cooler I had brought down. “Fill that with lake water, okay, Hank?”

I jumped up and quickly transferred its contents of beer, Kool-Aid and juice boxes to a larger chest. I dropped it into the lake and hauled up about five gallons of water. Meanwhile, Dad cut out the hook.

“Yes, now I tell you,” he said as he worked. “That is the biggest catfish I have ever seen come out of this lake.”

Collie beamed. “You done good, Collie!” my grandmother added.

Dad transferred the fish to the cooler. “Y’all get a look before I close it up,” he said, calling he kids over. The fish, cramped in its new quarters, splashed us as it flopped.

“Can we name it?” Lillie asked.

“No, Lillie, we are going to eat it,” Jason said.

“Is that true?” she asked me.

“Well, it’s Collie’s catch,” I said. “We’ll see. But no, we can’t keep it as a pet. It’s wild, honey.”

“Okay, y’all stand back,” Dad said. He closed the cooler and placed another cooler on top.

Later that afternoon, he would sneak up to the kitchen to gut and clean the fish.

The catfish was still in the cooler awaiting its fate when Lynn arrived. Collie eagerly showed off his catch. “You did not catch that!” she exclaimed. “It’s just too big.”

“Yes, I did,” Collie testified. “Papa helped.” He pointed to Dad as if calling a witness.

Collie was particularly proud to have impressed Lynn, for she belongs to the most elite group he knows. Teenagers. The arbiters of cool.

Collie’s intimate knowledge of teenage culture is actually rather limited. Besides his cousin Lynn, and her brother Tracy, he is closest to his half sister, my daughter Rachel. All of them live far from his home in New York, but he refers to them all frequently.

He is keenly aware that his brother Jason is only a couple of years away from entering his teens as well. In his book, that ends childhood and begins the stage of “cool” before you become a grown up.

In this regard, Lynn’s credentials are impeccable. She looks out for her younger cousins, talking with them and offering each a turn with her on the Sea-Doo, pushing it through bucking bronco stunts, as opposed to the feeble pony rides offered by the grown ups.

She also outstrips the grown ups physically. For the past year, Lynn has been taller than me, inhabiting a grown woman’s body since age thirteen. Her stepmother bemoans, “I can’t even loan her a swimsuit. You know what it’s like, living with a Playboy centerfold?”

Both of my brother Jesse’s teenagers are sweet, cool and drop-dead gorgeous blondes.

Their beauty makes us all nervous. There are so many moths drawn to their flames.

With Lynn’s arrival, we decided to take out the boat for the rest of the day. We loaded up snacks, drinks and beer. Lynn, acting as captain, steered to the most open waters.

Mom, as usual, stayed home. She mostly watches television these days.

On the boat, Jason and I staked out long benches, taking in the sun and wind and the quiet floating above the engine’s roar. I sipped cold Miller Lite from a can. Collie told Dad how he caught the fish, once more, as Nanny listened, smiling.

Behind the wheel, Lynn flipped on the radio. She stood to dance as she sang along.

Few times I’ve been around that track
So it’s not just gonna happen like that
Because I ain’t no hollaback girl
I ain’t no hollaback girl

Ooooh ooh, this my shit, this my shit . . .

Lillie jumped into the seat next to Lynn.

“What’s a ‘hollow back girrrrrrrrrl?’” she asked her cousin. “Am I one?”

That night, I fried Collie’s catfish, serving it with grouper and shrimp—store bought, of course—buttered corn and Nanny’s green beans. As we ate, Lynn’s brother Tracy arrived with his best friend, Will.

I got up to hug their necks. Had to. Tracy’s my boy. Tracy and I have been particularly close for the past several years, mostly keeping in touch via instant message and emails.

He and Will have a band for which Tracy supplies the lyrics. He sends me poetry fueled with teenage angst. I comment and do what I can to steer him to better reading material—“Have you ever read Frank O’Hara, Tracy?”—curtailing my prejudice against “emo” as I listen for his writer’s voice.

Last year, he and Will came up to New York to visit and see bands. We banged heads at CBGBs and concurred that The Used just suck in the worst way. I sent them home with a New York Dolls CD.

That night, with the grown ups in bed and my kids asleep, I poured a bourbon and joined the teens on the pier. I noticed red embers glowing in the dark. “Evening y’all.”

“Oh shit,” Tracy jumped. “Uncle Hank, you scared me to death.”

Lynn hid a cigarette behind her back. Will took out a pack. “You want a smoke?”

“No, I don’t smoke, thanks. Nasty habit.” I sat and sipped my bourbon.

“We were just talking about our last rehearsal,” Tracy began, flicking an ash. “We’re playing with this new bass player now, and she is awesome, man.”

“Hell yeah she is,” Will concurred. “We’re gonna get a CD on this one.”

Tracy jammed his cigarette in his mouth and took up an air bass. “Blam, buh be buh BLAM bluh BLAM. Fuck she rocks.”

“Well, great! You still working on that song about, what was it, the trash talk song?”

Lynn was quiet as the boys went on about their as-yet-unnamed band. She had been on the phone since her shower after the boat excursion. In an extended conversation, she and her boyfriend had broken up.

“You okay?” I asked her.

“Um? Yeah, I’m okay. Whatever.”

“Sucks.”

“It does.”

My relationships with my niece and nephew, like my long-distance relationship with my daughter Rachel, are something of a rehearsal for raising the three future teenagers I have at home.

I am a responsible adult in the lives of these teens. Like other adults, I inevitably offer a role model. On the other hand, I am not like their parents. I don’t set down rules or dispense consequences. The challenge is that I am not interested in being the “cool uncle,” in the sense of bring an adult reliving his own adolescence through theirs. I want to be there to offer an alternative to the adults they need to deal with. I try to be there as an adult they want to deal with.

Tracy and I found an easy connection in music and poetry. He sees me as someone who got out and made a life about art. No one else he knows seems to have done that. Like Rachel, he knows that I won’t freak out about the real-life stuff. Like her, he told me when he lost his virginity. He told me when he smoked pot. He told me about sneaking drinks with Will.

He also tells me what it was like to grow up with divorced parents. Divorce is so rare in my family. I benefit from his insights.

I listen to these stories. And while I offer proper advice—“seriously, use condoms, even with birth control pills”—I also share their excitement about these rites of passage.

I have to earn their trust, even as I have to trust them to make the right choices.

I am also aware that there are limits to my influence. I am influential only to the extent that they share with me. If I bust them to their folks, they would clam up and that would be that.

I have to accept my role as an adult who listens while listening for anything of serious concern. I try to appreciate what is unique about this, wondering how it will translate to the next decade of parenting, as my kids go through their teens.

I know the divorce will have long-lasting effects.

Lucy and I are each good parents. We will do fine, I trust.

But I am dismayed by her stubbornness and reticence. We will not have the parenting relationship I anticipated. We will not lay in bed each night discussing Jason’s mood that day, worrying about Collie’s new friend, or wondering about Lillie’s PSAT.

Unless Lucy changes in some dramatic way, she will continue to formulate edicts to be followed by myself and the children. These edicts will continue to be delivered to me as curt orders, with no desire for my input or respect for my opinions.

If I contest or adapt these edicts, or establish my own, she will be furious and refuse to speak with me.

Which is a sad thing. Sad for her, primarily, because that just doesn’t fly.

I am not the cool uncle of my children. I am their father. I am a great collaborator, but the bottom line is, I don’t work for their mother. We work for them.

After a while, I stood and stretched. “Well, thanks for talking with me,” I said. “I better turn in. I’m beat, and anyway, I know y’all will be up all night. I have to look chipper at breakfast.”

“All right Uncle Hank,” Tracy gripped my hand and pulled me into a hug. “See you in the morning.”

“Or as close as you manage. Good night, Will.” He rapped his knuckles to mine. I leaned over to hug Lynn.

“Night sweet. Thanks for being such a cool cuz to the kids.”

“I had fun,” she said. “Night. I love you.”

“Love you too, sugar.”

“Yeah, love you Uncle Hank.”

“I love you Tracy.”

“Well, shit, I love you, too,” Will added. Tracy and Lynn laughed.

“Baby, your shit is bananas,” I said, knocking his head.

I walked up the steps, leaving them to do what they do.

You catch them, and they are yours for a short time.

Eventually, you have to cut them loose.

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I was already formally engaged, as we used to say, to the girl I was going to marry. But still, I sometimes went out on the town with girls of a different sort. And during the very week before the date set for the wedding . . .

“Hey Uncle Hank! Uncle Hank!”

I looked up from my book. “Yes?”

“Hey watch this!”

“I’m watching.”

“Okay, watch!”

“Okay.”

Bart ran to the end of the diving board and jumped, sending up a big splash.

“Hey!” his brother Billy shouted from a float nearby. “He splashed me!”

Bart’s head emerged from the water. He swung his hair to one side. “Uncle Hank, did you see?”

“I did! That was a big splash, Bart.”

“You got me wet, butthead!” Billy complained.

“You’re in the water, moron! You are wet!” Bart bellowed, slapping water in Billy’s direction.

“Hey!”

“Bart, please don’t splash your brother. Billy, maybe you should move your float while Bart is jumping. And both of you, drop the name calling. ”

“I was here first!”

“It’s a very big lake. I’m sure you can work this out.”

. . . out on the town with girls of a different sort. And during the very week before the date set for the wedding, in December, I was in an automobile accident at a time when one of those girls was with me. It was a calamitous thing to have happen . . .

“Dad?”

I looked up from my book. “Yes, dear?”

Lillie held her belly and rolled her eyes. “I’m sta-aa-arving.”

My grandmother raised herself in her chair. “Do you want me to get some lunch for the babies?”

“No Nanny, they are fine, thank you. I’ll go up later to make lunch.” I turned to my daughter. “Lillie, we just had breakfast a little while ago. Why don’t you eat some of the grapes we brought with us?”

“I’m sick of grapes.”

“Well, then you can wait for lunch.”

“Baby, do you want some of these cheese crackers I brought?” Nanny reached for her bag.

“Yes! Cheese crackers, cheese crackers!”

“Wait, is she getting cheese crackers?” Bart shouted from the water. “I want some!”

“You just mind your jumping,” Nanny hollered back.

“That’s so unfair!”

“Well, I’m sorry,” Nanny wavered. “But you keep swimming.” She lowered her voice to me as Lillie took the crackers. “That boy just never stops eating. He can’t stand to miss any opportunity to eat some more.”

“Yeah, I’ve noticed.”

“Well,” her head bobbed on her shoulder. She lowered her voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “He needs to lose weight. That’s why I hid the snacks you got for your babies.”

“Probably a wise idea. You okay now, Lillie?” She nodded.

I looked at Jason floating across the slip on a foam noodle. Collie, wearing a life jacket and grasping another noodle, paddled behind.

“You boys stay on this side of the boat house, okay?”

“Okay, dad,” Jason yelled back.

“Dad, look how far I am!”

“I see, Collie. Just stay where I can see you.”

I watched for a moment longer. Things quieted down. I sipped my can of Miller Lite and returned to reading.

. . . automobile accident at a time when one of those girls was with me. It was a calamitous thing to have happen —not the accident itself, which caused no serious injury to anyone, but the accident plus the presence of that girl.

“Dad, will you swim with me?” Lillie asked. Her face was now sprinkled with orange crumbs.

“Uh, sure.” I put the book down. “Let me adjust your lifejacket, sweetie.”

“You want me to go fix the lunches?” my grandmother asked, beginning to stand.

“No ma’am, that’s all right. I’ll take Lillie up after our swim. You want to help me make lunch, Lillie?”

“Yes, if I can make my own. And Collie’s!”

“Deal. Let’s swim.”

“I don’t mind going,” my grandmother said.

I looked at the fifty-three steps leading uphill from the pier to the house. I looked back to my eighty-two-year-old grandmother.

“No, that’s okay, Nanny. It won’t take us but a minute to do it. Just keep an eye on the boys, okay?”

“Shoot,” she chortled. “If anything happens, all I can do I sit here and holler.”

“That’s about right,” I smiled, holding Lillie’s hands as we stepped into the water.

I didn’t mind making lunch. I had assumed that on this trip, as in previous years, I would be the head chef for my family vacation—that is, if we wanted three squares.

The night before, my brother Frank came over unannounced just as I was starting dinner. He brought two of his three boys.

“Hey Hank!”

“Well hey, Frank,” I smiled as he pulled me into a bear hug. “This is a nice surprise. I didn’t know we’d see you tonight.”

“No, neither did I.” He laughed. “But I got out of work early and so I decided, ‘Well hell, let’s go to the lake and see Hank.’”

“Dad, I’m hungry,” Bart whined.

“Well, get yourself something to eat,” Frank said. “And get me a beer while you’re at it.”

“Are you staying for dinner?” I asked.

“Sure, what are you making?”

“Pasta,” I said, opening a cabinet to trade the pot I had chosen for a bigger one. “Would you put this roast in the fridge and take out a chicken, please?”

I have to grin and bear this part of time with my family: the aversion, among some, to planning ahead.

My life in New York is set by schedules. I have my kids on certain nights and weekends. My work is delegated to overlapping deadlines.

With the time remaining, I plan dates and orgies.

All of these days are set well in advance.

There is very little wiggle room, but I don’t much mind. I like knowing what to expect, so I can plan for it.

I’m not sure how I arrived at this desire for order, but one thing is certain: I did not inherit it.

When my parents bought this lake house a decade ago, they were attracted to the fact that it was a good size to suit their needs and to accommodate the guests that are inevitably drawn to waterside properties.

There was a bedroom for my parents, another for my grandmother and a third for guests. There were two and a half baths, a nice kitchen and a living area large enough for a fold-out sofa.

Perfect for most weekends.

When I came for a visit, my kids went in the guest room. It was assumed I would sleep with my grandmother.

This is a long-standing family tradition. As I am up late, and my grandmother rises early, it makes sense that we share a bed, as we would only be in it together for a couple of hours.

Now, that plan works fine, unless my brothers decide to crash there with their families.

I have never understood why they would do this, as their own homes are only an hour or so away.

But when I visited, it was not at all unusual for the house to bed our entire family for the night.

My parents.

My grandmother.

Me and my three kids—four if Rachel joined us.

My brother Jesse and his two kids.

My brother Frank, his wife Sharon and their three sons.

My brother Lee, his wife Tanya and their daughter.

Nineteen people. Three bedrooms.

We slept on chairs and boats, in sleeping bags and hammocks, on a screened-in porch.

If everyone was staying over, I never knew where I would be sleeping from night to night. Chances were good I wouldn’t know who was staying over until they went to sleep.

Tanya and her daughter go to bed early, so they would take my place in Nanny’s bed.

I would usually tuck my kids into bed early and take whatever was left when everyone else had passed out.

This year was a little different.

Last autumn, a tornado had damaged part of the house.

The damage was not too severe, and the house was insured. My brother Frank resolved to make good use of the settlement by contracting the repairs himself. In the process, he designed an addition that would add three rooms to the house.

So it was that this year, for the first time, I had my own room.

Or at least, I did until Frank and his boys arrived. When I heard their voices at the door, I immediately wondered if they would take my bed.

“So,” I asked casually, as water boiled and I chopped chicken. “Are y’all staying overnight?”

“I wish I could, man, but I have to work. So the boys will stay, but I can’t.”

“Oh.” I stirred the sauce. “The boys are staying over?”

“Yeah, just for a couple of days. Then Sharon and I will come down too.”

“I see.” This was news to me. I kept my eyes on the sauce. “Well, you know Dad and Mom are working tomorrow and the next day, so Nanny and I will be the only adults.”

“Yeah,” he sipped a Miller Lite. “Is that all right? You know the boys are cool in the water. They are so excited to play with their cousins.”

The names of Frank’s boys all begin with the letter B: Buster, Bart and Billy. They are collectively known as the “Three Bs.”

Aka Brat, Bully and Baby.

No one would ever choose to be trapped with these children. They are wild and insatiable for attention.

But I am Frank’s big brother, and their Uncle Hank. And I have always hated the way my family considers the grandchildren as extensions of my generation. This fact has never worked in Frank’s favor. My kids are thought to be geniuses because I got good grades and went to college. Jesse’s kids are thought to be athletic and socially adept because he was a popular football player. Lee’s two-year-old girl is treated as a doll because he was the baby of the family. Frank was a difficult child, always in trouble. This was primarily due to the fact that his ADHD was undiagnosed until late adolescence. He was unhappy and suffering most of childhood.

We didn’t know this at the time. Back then, we just thought he was an asshole.

As a child, Frank fought Jesse and Lee all the time. I wouldn’t fight him. Fate had assigned me, as the eldest, with the role of peacekeeper. I would yell at Frank and Jesse for fighting, and grab little Lee away when Frank got too rough. Among us four boys, that passed for diplomacy.

Now, as an adult, I was having none of this theory that the grandchildren were variations on the four brothers. It annoyed me to see Frank’s boys considered hopelessly out of control, just as it annoyed me to see my own children assumed to be brainiacs.

They are all just kids.

“Sure, man. Leave them. We’ll have fun.”

What else could I say?

Still, the next day at the pier, as my grandmother and I supervised five children under the age of twelve, I made it clear that Uncle Hank is more lifeguard than party animal.

“Uncle Hank, can you give us ride on the Sea-Doo?” Bart begged.

“No, I have to stay on the pier to watch everyone.”

“Can we go out on the boat?”

“Nope, I don’t have a boating license.”

“You mean, we just have to just stay here and swim?”

“That’s right.”

“Gyah! That’s so lame.”

“I know. I’m pretty lame.” I looked at Lillie. “Ready to make some lunches, sweetheart?”

“Yes!”

“Let’s do it.” I lifted my head to shout. “Jason, Collie, come back to the shallow water.” Lillie and I stepped out and collected towels. “Okay Nanny, you’re in charge.”

“Are you sure?” she shifted in her chair. “You don’t need help?”

“No, just yell loud if anyone goes under.”

That night, alone in my room, I finished the story I had tried to read all day, “The Old Forest” by Peter Taylor. It was included in a collection I had given my father twenty years ago, but never read myself.

The story’s narrator looks back on a car accident that occurred forty years earlier, in the Thirties, just days before his wedding. He had been traveling with a young woman who mysteriously vanished from the scene of the accident.

His fiancée joined in the search for the missing woman. Together, they discover a loosely knit subculture of shop girls who sidestepped the class hierarchy of Memphis society by creating their own support networks.

This allowed them a measure of freedom denied most women in their time and place, as they relied less on caste and wealth, and more on one another. If they looked out for one another, they reasoned, they could get what they wanted from the men and women who shopped in their stores—and their sons, who took them on dates with no hope of matrimony—to whom they were otherwise interchangeable “girls.”

I closed the book and took my bourbon outside.

I listened to crickets as I took a leak near a tree felled by the tornado. If I had gone inside to the bathroom, I might have disturbed Frank’s boys in the living room.

I settled into a seat on the pier, and watched the stars.

That’s the trick to personal freedom, I thought. Figure out the restrictions and work around them.

You may not be able to change the universe to your liking, but you can certainly create your solar system within it.

You can make your own freedom.

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My children were asleep in their beds, splayed in configurations wildly different from those into which they had originally been tucked. My parents were asleep in my bed, side-by-side, as they have been every night for over four decades.

It was a little after three in the morning. I closed the bedroom doors after checking on my sleeping family and returned to my desk. I looked forward to spending time with family, but dreaded the absolute loss of privacy that had already begun. For the next weeks, I would rarely be alone—and hence, I would have very few opportunities to work. I couldn’t help myself. I had to squeeze a little more solitude from these few last quiet moments at my desk. My last moments alone in New York.

Dad awoke shortly after dawn, and made his way to the kitchen. He put on a teakettle for coffee and began to make bacon and pancakes. He had asked me to supply the utensils and ingredients the night before, so I could sleep in. I had been awake on the couch since Dad first flipped on the kitchen light.

With breakfast underway, I got up to wake and dress the kids. Mom was watching television in bed, so I kissed her good morning.

I had suggested that Dad double my usual quantity of pancake batter. He was already on the second full platter of pancakes when we sat down, with plenty more to go. “I think Hank had me make so many pancakes just to keep me busy and out of the way,” he groused playfully from the kitchen.

“I’m just not that smart, Dad,” I said, cutting the kids’ stacks as they poured torrents of syrup. “But it sure did keep you out from underfoot.”

Dad retrieved the car as I washed the breakfast dishes and tended to some final packing. We loaded up and were soon underway. I volunteered to drive the first leg—just to get us out of the city, I said. With any luck, I would drive all day. It had been a while since I was behind the wheel.

We were on the turnpike when Collie requested our favorite road song.

Being in the navigator’s seat, Mom was in charge of distributing CDs. She pulled out the requested disk. I cued the song.

The kids were soon scream singing “Stacy’s Mom.”

“Excuse me, but what’s this song about?” my mother asked.

“Oh, they are singing what you think they are singing, Mom.”

“Oo-oo-kay,” she replied, extending her vowels in a querulous tone.

Hopefully, Mom would be napping when Lillie requested “Filthy/Gorgeous.”

Mom was accustomed to the notion that her Yankee grandchildren were a little different that her other grandbabies.

For their part, the kids were prepared for the occasional clash of cultures when we returned to the Deep South. Their mother had reminded them that south of the Mason-Dixon, it wasn’t kosher to take the Lord’s name in vain. I had already commended Jason that morning when an aggravation warranted a “Jeez” rather than a “Jesus Christ.”

Collie was beginning to refer to the family as “y’all,” though he did so by waving his fingers in the air as quotation marks.

Lillie laughed at Southern accents—she giggled as she loudly sang “Own the Road Aga-yun”—but recognized a particular awesomeness to the landscape of endless pine trees, “Crackle Barrels” and “Wall Marks.”

Lillie asked me to replay “Stacy’s Mom” over and again, encouraging Collie to offer his parody rendition as “Stacy’s Dog.”

“Okay, that’s enough of ‘Stacy’s Mom,’” I finally said, putting down my foot as we crossed into Pennsylvania. “Find other things to do, okay?” Collie and Jason reverted to collecting sightings of states on license plates. Mom pitched in to assist.

Dad interviewed Lillie’s dolls, asking their favorite colors, favorite songs, favorite foods, and so on, as their five-year-old agent offered thoughtful answers.

I drove. The Fountains of Wayne played on.

And the bourbon sits inside me
Right now I’m a puppet in its sway
And it may just be the whiskey talking
But the whiskey says I miss you every day

So I taxi to an all-night party
Park me in the corner in an old chair
Sip my drink and stare out into space

And now you’re leaving New York
For no better place

The Garden State was in my rear view mirror, and beyond that, Manhattan. My life there was on hiatus as I drove South.

Watching the white lines zipping under my hood, I took stock of things back there. Jesus Christ. My future was full of possibilities and not much certainty. Now, I was driving headlong into my past.

I pushed the eject button. “Hey Mom, would you please pass that John Hiatt CD?”

I didn’t say we wouldn’t hurt anymore
That’s how you learn, you just get burned
But we don’t have to feel like dirt anymore
Though love’s not earned; baby, it’s our turn
We were always looking for true north
With our heads in the clouds, just a little off course
I left the motor running, now if you’re feeling down and out
Come on, baby; drive south, with the one you love

Two days later, we were at my parents’ house. That first night, I fried chicken, mashed potatoes, boiled corn and cut fresh tomatoes. The kids chased Mom’s puppy, watched television and went to bed early.

My father and grandmother did dishes as Mom went to bed with the puppy. A few “good nights” and “I love yous” later, I was alone. I poured a tall bourbon and walked down to the lake.

I pulled off my shirt and sat on the pier, dangling my feet in the water. I sipped my bourbon, leaning back on bent elbows. You forget how many stars there are down here, I thought.

After a while I stood and unzipped my shorts. I kicked them off to one side and stood naked in the moonlight. I took another sip and put aside my glass. I stretched.

My dive broke the black stillness.

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“Well hey, y’all!” I hugged Mom.

Dad patted my back. “Howdy, howdy!” I hugged him, kissing his cheek.

I stood back and smiled. “Y’all look great! Come in, come in . . . how was the drive?”

Within moments of being with my parents, I could already feel my accent thickening, my New York skin shedding as I became Southern again.

My parents had driven to the city over the course of two days in order to keep a family tradition. Every summer, I take my children down south to visit family. With the expense of my divorce, I wasn’t sure we could afford to fly this year. (It only salts the wound to think that for the price of flying to my hometown, I could take the kids to Europe.) I don’t own a car—no need in Manhattan—and so, rather than consider the option of missing this summer, my parents volunteered to drive up to fetch their prodigal son and Yankee grandchildren.

Their arrival signaled the beginning of homecoming. For the next three weeks, I would put aside my identities as writer, lover and kinkster, and take up those of son, brother and uncle.

Even my name changes when I go home. I was named for my mother’s father, who died suddenly just before my birth. No one was ready for another “Henry” just yet, so I was raised as “Hank.” As a teenager, I switched names, glad to be rid of the teasing variations on my nickname that had followed me since elementary school.

Hankerchief. Hanky Panky. Spanky Hanky.

To the world I am Henry, but to my birth family, I will always be “Hank.”

Mom and Dad were staying with me for a few days. The kids would join us a day before we began to journey south. I gave my bedroom over to my parents, over their cursory objections. This room has the most comfortable bed and I can easily sleep on the couch.

Of course, I had previously scoured the bedroom for incriminating evidence.

After all, I had hosted a date the night before.

The room was swept clear of condoms and water bottles, the lube and sex toys put away.
I put out fresh sheets.

I removed a painting of a nude. I added a vase of flowers.

While Dad parked the car, I wheeled their luggage into my room. Mom covered my pillows with those she brought from home.

I had offered her a glass of water. She set it on the nightstand as she began to unpack a few things.

“Well, flitter, I spilled some,” she said. “I don’t know how, but I got your table wet.”

“No worries,” I said, running a finger through the liquid—yep, it was lube all right—while reaching for a tissue with the other hand.

My eyes scanned for discarded condoms as I wiped the mess. Did I miss anything else?

“So,” Mom asked, sitting on the bed. “How does Lucy the Bitch feel about you taking the kids home?”

“I don’t know. She doesn’t talk to me, really. I’m sure she will miss the kids terribly.”

“Well, she should have thought of that before she divorced you.”

“I reckon so. Anyway, she just had the kids out to visit her family, and for the same amount of time, so that’s just how it is.”

“And she can’t miss the kids anymore than you do when she has them.”

“That’s right, that’s right.”

There wasn’t much that I cared to add to my mother’s ongoing conversation theme about what a bitch I married, so I changed the subject to dinner plans.

My mother was blessed at birth with an unflinching certainty that anything that makes it from her subconscious to her tongue is gospel truth. My father long ago learned the value of letting her win every argument, a lesson imparted onto his four sons. Even as boys, we learned to sagely nod when Mom began to pontificate.

For a while during my teenage years, I indulged in a measure of rebellion once I realized that my mother’s certainty was based more on instinct than facts.

I would argue from the vantage of experts. If a book offered facts contradicting something my mother believed, I thought I should speak up to set the record straight. Even Mom would have to admit that her views were not always right. Mom made it clear that she did not have to make any such admission.

So I faced facts. I learned to close my ears to her certainty, to keep my nose buried in books, and to mouth my opinions elsewhere.

For this visit, I had already made a mental note to sidestep some particular conversational landmines:

George W. Bush. Mom believes that her president is doing a fine job. If the facts haven’t dissuaded her of these convictions, then I’m not likely to have any better luck.

Natalee Halloway. The local girl missing in Aruba was not dead, she had been sold into white slavery. She will turn up alive in Venezuela, and her kidnappers brought to justice.

Donald Trump. Mom is fascinated by the man whose name adorns some of the tackiest real estate in Manhattan. So far as she is aware, I share her high opinion of his business acumen.

If these subjects came up, I would simply keep a civil tongue. However, there was no avoiding the subject of my divorce from Lucy the Bitch.

My mother and Lucy had never made a secret of the fact that neither held the other in any special esteem. That’s difficult enough, but worse still, it had always been important to each of them that I am on her side, not her side.

“Your mother is the stupidest woman alive,” my wife would laugh derisively.

“I know you love her, Hank, but Lucy is a very rude woman,” my mother would sadly note.

In each case, I would nod and wait for the subject to change.

My parents and I spent a very pleasant few days together as they relaxed from their long trip. Finally, Lucy brought the children to the apartment to begin their visit with my family.

The kids were excited to see their grandparents. Lucy hugged my father and mother in turn. Convention dictated that she stay for some polite conversation. She declined my offer of a drink and remained standing in the living room.

I busied myself with the children.

“Well, did y’all have a good time with your family?” my mother asked.

“Yes, “ Lucy nodded, her mouth firm. “Yes, we did.”

“That’s nice. Did y’all see your sister? She’s married now, right?”

“Yes, we did. She married in the spring.”

“I recall the children were at the wedding. I don’t guess Hank was?”

“No, just the kids.”

“Well, I’m happy for her. I always liked your sister. You tell her I said hello.”

“Sure, will do.”

I was in the kitchen when I overheard the conversation taking its predictable turn.

My mother had packed her soapbox.

“All I know is, if they had kept better records on those terrorists, the World Trade Center would still be standing.”

“But the government can’t just round up all Arabs and assume they are terrorists! That reeks of Big Brother.”

“Oh, I don’t know about that. Tell you what, I think Big Brother was right about something. They should put satellite tracking devices on every baby born in this country. If they did, we’d know where Natalee Halloway is, that’s for sure.”

“Well,” Lucy laughed, heading to the kitchen, “I guess we have to disagree on that!”

She came into the kitchen and grabbed my arm. I flinched instinctively. “I can not stay in a room with that woman!” she whispered. “She’s crazy!”

“Okay, well, you can go. Do we have everything we need for the kids?”

“Oh yes,” she nodded, eyes wide. “Oh yes. God, how did you come from that woman?”

“The conventional way, I guess. So we’ll call from the road.”

“Fine.” She turned to shout. “Kids! I’m leaving. Come say goodbye.” The kids hugged their mother and she was gone.

Mom looked surprised. “Well, that was abrupt.” Dad grimaced and shook his head.

“Yeah, I guess,” I said. “So who wants to go to Patsy’s for dinner?”

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