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Archive for November, 2005

My first sentient memory was waking in an empty bed in a bright room to a dull headache. I looked at my digital clock. It flashed midnight.

I am a heavy sleeper, so I keep several clocks. The analog clock on my nightstand told me it was just after eight.

I woke again, closer to nine. I pulled the pillow from between my knees and staggered to the bathroom. I combed my hair with my fingers as I relieved myself.

I washed my hands and brushed my teeth. I put on a kettle for coffee.

I soaped a sponge to wash the dishes from the previous evening. Consuela had sweetly spearheaded the effort to gather them into the kitchen. Once I had filled the dish rack, I took my coffee to get started on work.

The computer was dead.

Oh, right; I recalled the clock in my bedroom. I turned on the computer and went on to fix the other snafus from previous night.

I reset the digital clock, turned on the answering machine, and restarted the fish tank.

Someone at the party must have flipped my switches.

I live in a postwar apartment. The attraction of modern apartments, particularly for the original tenants, was that basic specifications could readily modified. My long-lived predecessor in this apartment had a bright idea: as there were no overhead lights in the bedrooms, she had the outlets wired to wall switches. When she went to bed at night, she could turn off the console television in the living room, flip two switches and turn in, confident that all the lamps were out.

It was a very nice idea in nineteen fifty-five.

Since then, of course, many things have changed. I did a good deal of redecorating before moving in, but somehow I overlooked the wiring. Nowadays, the wall outlets are dedicated not only to lamps, but also to power strips supporting things that didn’t exist fifty years ago. This is generally not a problem. But it can be a hangover after parties.

As people prepare to head home after a party, they seek out their belongings by flipping switches when they enter a candlelit room. It’s a natural reaction, though doing so at my place produces no lights—it just kills the electronics No biggie. I know how to fix it.

With my clock reset and my electronics up and running, I settled in to work. I had a productive day, happily uninterrupted by telephone calls.

My aversion to telephones is well known among my friends and family. I regard them as nuisances to be used only when ordering Chinese or summoning ambulances. I generally let calls go to voice mail and return them at my convenience. Ignoring telephones is a useful tactic if I want to get things done.

So it was that for a couple of days, I failed to notice that somehow, in the course of the most recent party, some unsuspecting soul had murdered my telephone. The phone had served me well for over a decade. Apparently its time had come. By being detached and reattached, powered on and off, its final bell had rung. Once I noticed its demise, I took steps to acquire a replacement. I picked up two phones, in fact, so that there would be a back up in another room.

My new phone rang not long after it was installed.

“Hello?”

“Hank! Your phone works!”

“Hi Mom. Sure, it works. My old one died, so I have a new one. Still getting the hang of it . . .”

“Are you okay?”

“Sure, I’m fine. Why, what’s up?”

“Well, I’ll be darned. That bitch did it again.”

“What? Lucy? Why, what did she do?”

Mom explained that Lucy had called me and discovered that the voice mail did not pick up. She deduced that my phone was broken or out of service. She sent panicky emails to her parents and mine. I asked Mom to forward these emails to me.

Lucy’s first missive read:

Hello everyone. I am very very sad to write that Henry does not have a phone. I have called and called and there’s just no answer.

I’m very concerned about this! I have to be able to talk to the kids when they are with him. There could be an emergency.

I know he wants to be left alone, but he needs to accept that he is a father. It’s not responsible to have no phone.

Can you help??

My mother was quick to express her alarm.

Lucy, I’m sorry to hear about Henry’s phone. I’m scared because his great aunt is very sick. How will I reach him if anything goes wrong?

Lucy replied:

I don’t know what to tell you. He is very irresponsible to have no phone. Anything can happen!

All I can say is that you can contact me if you need to reach him. I see Henry when we trade the kids. I can’t promise that he will contact you, but I can promise that I will deliver your message.

I hope you aunt gets better.

Mom was somewhat relieved.

Lucy, thank you for offering. Please tell Henry to call me when he can. Tell him we love him.

Lucy’s father sent a short note wondering if the children would be “secure” with me while my phone was out of service. Lucy replied that she would hate to re-open the question of custody, but that was a real concern for her as well.

The emails went back and forth, fueled by Lucy’s anxiety and frustration.

Funny thing, though: at no point did any of these dimwits think to email me. Lucy did not cc me on the original email, and as they speculated about the possible fate of Henry and his phone, they continued to hit the “reply all” button.

I knew nothing about this until my mother called. I took a breath and composed an email.

Hi all,

My mother has forwarded to me the emails generated since Lucy discovered my phone was out of order the other day. I had no idea that there was concern, as no one bothered to email me.

It’s true: my old phone is no more. That relic of the last century has been consigned to the toy bin.

My new phone is up and running. Everyone is secure. Feel free to call anytime.

Best,
Henry

Lucy’s father emailed to thank me for the clarification. I told him that in the future, he should let me know when she gets like this. He knows his daughter is a little crazy where I am concerned.

One evening soon after, when the kids were with me, Lucy made a very unusual call to my parents. She rarely calls them for any reason. This time, she was apparently stoned. For over half an hour, she poured out her anxieties to my dad.

Henry is going to take the kids and leave, she said. He doesn’t have enough income to raise three kids in the city. He’s going to move south to live near you, and I will never see the kids.

She teared now and then as she spoke.

Dad tried to calm her. Henry is not moving south, Lucy. We would love to see more of him and the kids, but his career is in New York, and anyway, he would never take your babies away. He finally convinced her that there was no secret plan afoot.

Mom called to tell me about this. She asked why Lucy was going off the deep end.

The divorce is now final, I explained, and very fresh. I think it is sinking in that because she no longer controls me, she can’t always be in full control of the kids.

We wrote off Lucy’s call to drunk dialing.

Lucy subsequently arranged for Jason to have a cell phone. Now she calls him when she wants to speak to the kids.

She never rings my phone.

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Hot Dog Man

Each year, the PTA sponsors many fundraisers. First up on the academic calendar is Oktoberfest. Parents are expected to volunteer for the event. There are numerous jobs—barkers, coordinators, vendors, clean up.

I pride myself in being a skilled face painter. Alas, that task had been taken when I arrived for my shift. I was assigned to another.

I was the hot dog man.

I stood a booth offering hot dogs for the price of two tickets, with bottled water and Capri Sun going for one ticket each. I offered a full complement of condiments, offering to fix them anyway you like, or to allow you to fix them yourself.

My ex Lucy was tending another booth near the entrance. The kids begged us for tickets and busied themselves with the attractions.

As I prepared for my shift, I restocked an ice chest with drinks. I was bent over the chest when Lucy and Lillie walked by, on their way to the restroom.

“Ugh, there’s a pleasant sight,” Lucy sniffed as she passed me.

I looked up. “Hi, Dad!” Lillie smiled and waved.

God, I thought, that woman really can’t stand the sight of me. Here was a moment where she might have said something pleasant (“Hey, Hot Dog Man!”), or neutral (“Nice day”), or nothing at all. Instead she has to be nasty. She just can’t control it.

There was nothing unusual in her invective, and anyway, I didn’t have much time to ponder it. Hot dogs were a popular item, being cheaper than pizza (four tickets) and subs (a bargain at six tickets).

I was soon tending a steady stream of customers. I was putting ketchup on a fourth grader’s hot dog when someone called my name.

“Henry? What are you doing here?”

I looked over and saw a woman I had not seen in about a year. Not since the time we had sex. “Oh hey,” I smiled, putting down the ketchup and wiping my hands. “What brings you here?”

“I have a booth with a friend of mine,” she said, gesturing toward an adjacent street fair. “We make puppets.”

“Well, cool. I’ve got kids in this school, so I’m serving as the hot dog man. You want one?”

“No, no, I just need two waters . . .”

“I can set you up. That will be two tickets, please.”

“Oh,” she said, looking at her palm. “I only have one . . .”

“That’s fine,” I said, winking as I took her ticket. “On the house.”

“You’re sure?”

“Yes, no problem.”

Kids were clamoring for hot dogs.

“Looks like you are busy,” she said. “Come by our booth when you are done. I want to see what you think of our puppets!”

“Will do! Nice to see you!”

“Yes,” she held up the water and mouthed, “thanks.” I smiled and returned to the hot dogs.

Gosh, I had not thought of her in a while.

We met through a personals ad she placed on Craig’s List. In the course of a very pleasant exchange, she revealed that she had formerly been a peep show girl in a Times Square grinder. Back in those days, she was a junky living with a dealer, trading ass for horse.

She had been sober for years now, she reported, but remained fascinated by that life. She was interested in compiling oral histories of sex workers who knew Times Square. She certainly got my attention. Oral histories, local color—she was driving right to my hot spots.

I proposed meeting for drinks. She was shy about sending her photo, but said I would know her by her long curly hair and her black leather jacket. That night, I was sure to have sex with this woman, and that expectation had me adjusting my pants as I walked to our date. The plan changed somewhat when I spotted her at a table. She had told me a good deal about herself, but omitted one detail:

She was not that attractive.

My pants required no further alterations.

I introduced myself and kissed her check. I sat and smiled. We ordered margaritas and chatted.

She was certainly a talker. I listened to her talk about her long deceased grandmother, her home improvements in the inherited house, her job, her cat. I nodded and interjected clucks of sympathy or chuckles of amusement as appropriate.

Some people talk a lot when they are nervous, and first dates can fray anyone’s nerves. I was willing to wait for her to relax a bit. As she talked, I watched her face, looking for things I might find attractive.

She had nice skin.

Her teeth were nice.

She had a Hobbit quality that was sort of endearing.

It was happy hour. A second margarita followed the first.

She discussed her interest in science fiction. I gamely led her back to our subjects of common interest. She talked about those as I listened.

I drank down my margarita. The waitress returned and asked if we’d care to stay for dinner. She looked at me and shrugged.

“Uh, sure,” I said, smiling. “That would be nice.”

During dinner, she talked about baseball, shopping and returned again to the subject of her dead grandmother.

We split the bill.

As we left the restaurant, she asked if I was in the mood for something sweet. No really, I replied, as I rarely eat desserts. Oh, she said, disappointed. But, I offered, I will be glad to join you, if you want one. She said that would be great. She knew a super place near her office.

We began to walk north. Midtown was largely abandoned by this hour. I’ve always enjoyed that sense of having the city to myself. Or, in this moment, to share the city with my new friend, the monologist.

We walked about ten blocks to discover that the place she had in mind was not open. She suggested we try another place. I agreed. We walked five more blocks to a deli. After some searching, she found a muffin she liked. “I wonder if I should eat it here,” she said, “or on the train home.”

I detected an exit. “We’re near the station. I’m happy to walk you over.”

“Oh thanks, that’s nice.” We walked four blocks to Grand Central.

When we reached the door, I stopped and turned to her. I listened as she concluded a story about her boss. “That is a pretty funny place to put a copier,” I agreed. “Well, I guess I should say goodnight.”

“Yes, here we are. I had a very nice time.”

“Me too,” I lied. I kissed her cheek.

She continued to talk for twenty more minutes. It was a chilly evening. I swayed to and fro for warmth. Finally, she said she really did have to go. I leaned over and kissed her cheek again. This time, as I pulled back, I turned and walked away.

“Nice to meet you,” I waved. “Keep in touch!”

“I will, thanks!” she waved.

I walked around the corner to another entrance. I checked to see the coast was clear. It was, so I entered the station and hopped the subway home.

Now, I was still pretty new to dating then, but I knew enough to know that when you aren’t interested in someone, it’s really just best to say so. No hard feelings, one should say, but I think I would prefer to leave things as they are. Best of luck. See you in the funny pages.

It’s really not that hard.

But yes, it can be hard.

So instead off being direct, I found myself being too nice, keeping up an email exchange with her, albeit a correspondence of considerably less ardor. One day, she wrote and asked me, point blank, to fuck her.

She told me I was the only decent fellow she had met lately, and she was just insanely horny. It had been over a year since she had been laid. Could I please do her this favor?

Well, what could I say? I invited her over.

She arrived after work, and quickly changed into an oversized open necked t-shirt. “I always sleep in one of these,” she said.

It was just after five in the evening. Surely she wasn’t planning to sleep over? I needed to develop an exit strategy. “Let me show you what I sleep in,” I said, undressing. “Because we only have a while before I need to leave.”

“Oh, you have to go somewhere?”

“Yes, but we have plenty of time.” I stepped out of my pants. “And by the way, I sleep in the nude.”

The sex was fine, but did nothing to dissuade me of my original assessment. She was easy to orgasm, which was fun, but it took stamina to continue past my general disinterest.

We lay back afterwards, allowing our bodies to cool.

“Hey, want to watch TV?” she asked.

“Um, sure,” I agreed, handing her the remote. “What’s on?”

“They do a great lineup on Sci Fi,” she said, clicking on the set.

We watched a made-for-television movie about a homely man who managed to steal the physical appearance of his handsome friend. Another feature began. The room grew dark as evening settled.

“Well,” I stretched, “thanks for coming over. This was nice.”

“Sure, I liked it too,” she said, her eyes on the movie.

I stood and began to dress. “I guess I should get going,” I said.

“Oh,” she sat up. “Then I guess I should get going, too.”

Good—I was well served by the Obi Wan Kenobi powers of persuasion.

“Want to walk with me to the subway?” she asked.

“No, thanks, I need to make a call before heading out.”

“Okay, well thanks again.”

“Oh, thank you.” I kissed her, and then opened the door.

“See you,” she said.

“Later!” I smiled. I closed the door and locked it.

I went back to my room, ditched my street clothes and settled in to write for the rest of the evening.

We continued to trade emails. Gradually, she got the idea that I wasn’t all that interested, and we let it go.

Then she showed up at my hot dog stand.

Oktoberfest was blessed by perfect weather at the end of eight straight days of rain. The clouds rolled back in as the event drew to a close.

Everyone scurried off to beat the storm. I shut down my stand and put away the condiments, buns, unsold drinks and folding table. I gathered my kids and hurried toward the bus stop.

My eyes made a cursory scan of the street fair, but I saw no sign of her. Most of the vendors were hurriedly dismantling their booths.

Saved by the storm, I thought. At least I was spared the awkwardness of introducing my kids to her. That would have been embarrassing.

For the life of me, I couldn’t recall her name.

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Dead Letter

School began not long after we returned from the South.

The children’s lives are divided between their mother’s house in the suburbs—formerly, our shared marital domicile—and our apartment in the city. The schools in the city are preferable to those in the suburbs, so the kids are registered in my local school district. This means all school related mailings come to my address.

This makes my ex Lucy anxious for two reasons.

First, she dislikes any factor of the children’s lives that is not completely under her control. To get the information contained in a school mailing, she needs to deal with me.

Second, I get an outrageous volume of mail. I have to confess that sorting it is not always my highest priority. I make sure to separate anything requiring immediate attention, and allow the rest to pile until I just can’t stand to look at the heap. Lucy is aware of this.

One evening, Lucy called.

“Henry, we are expecting a mailing from Jason’s school. It’s important because it includes his new class assignment.”

“Right, I have my eyes out for that.”

“Did you receive it?”

“No, not yet.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, I’m sure.”

“Henry, this is very important . . .”

“I realize that.”

“Can you please go through your mail to look for it?”

“It’s not here, Lucy.”

“Can you please look?”

“I will look, but as I said, it’s not here.”

“Fine. Call when you find it.” Click.

I sorted my mail. No letter from the school. I called.

“Henry, how could you have lost this letter? Can’t you focus at all on the children’s education? Don’t you know that that this is a critical year for Jason?”

She began to pace her words, as she broke down a crucial fact so that even I could understand its import: “Your son Jason. Needs to get. Good grades. In order to get. Into a good high school.”

“I recognize the value of a good education. And I’m aware of the correlation between grades and high school admissions. I am just reporting that the letter did not arrive.”

“Fine. I’ll have to call the school. Thanks a lot.” Click.

Lucy sent an email to say that the school gave her the assignment, so the letter was no longer needed. She had taken care of it.

She also reminded me that I had agreed that she and her brother Richard would join us for dinner on Saturday, during my weekend with the kids. I replied that it was great news about the school information, and of course, I looked forward to seeing Richard.

Richard is a fine fellow. He’s very smart—he would be on my short list of people to call as a contestant on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?”—and he keeps above the fray of our divorce even as he provides a sympathetic ear to his sister.

On Saturday, I took the kids swimming at a friend’s pool. It was a lovely warm day, as summer drifted into autumn. I periodically reminded the kids that we were having dinner that night with Uncle Richard. They were excited. As five o’clock rolled around, I toweled the kids and we dressed to return home, where we would meet Lucy and Richard.

“Hey Richard, welcome back!” I kissed him on the lips, as we do.

“Nice to see you Henry, you look great.”

“Uncle Richard, Uncle Richard!”

“You look great too, Lillie. So big! I can barely lift you!”

“I want to show you my video,” Collie tugged. “We did a play last year. I was a star!”

“I heard all about it! Let’s watch it in a minute, after I talk with the grown ups.”

“Boring!” Collie teased.

“I know, I’m a dull uncle.”

“Do you have any beer?” Lucy asked.

“I was just about to offer,” I replied. I went to the kitchen and brought out three glasses of Kingfisher. Richard was sitting on the couch. I place the beer on the coffee table.

“Lucy, here’s your beer.”

“Thanks, just a minute.” She was sorting through my mail.

Richard and I sat, talking.

“Jesus Christ, Henry!” Lucy held up an envelope.

“Don’t tell me you found the school letter?” I asked.

“No, but look at this. It’s a newsletter from my union, dated last month. You have to get my mail to me!” She looked at me, her face contorted into scowl that read “This is so fucking obvious, moron.” She took the newsletter to the kitchen and tossed it in the trash, unread.

“Maybe you want to save that, and let them know to correct the address,” I suggested.

“That’s not the point,” she said from the kitchen.

I shrugged to Richard. We picked up the conversation.

I could hear Lucy opening cabinets. “Henry, why do you buy Capri Sun?

“I’m sorry, what?”

She emerged from the kitchen. “Capri Sun. It’s not one hundred percent juice. You shouldn’t buy it for the kids.”

“Okay.”

She sat down and took her beer. She noticed a book on the table.

“T. C. Boyle? Since when do you read T. C. Boyle?”

“That’s a bestseller, Lucy. I’m not the only person to read it.” I heard the undertone: T. C. Boyle, like Paul Auster, was her author. I had no business reading her authors.

“Oh, I know that book,” Richard said. He began to discuss it. I was glad to let him handle the conversation.

Collie came out to remind Richard about the video. Richard took his beer to watch in the other room. Lucy returned to sorting my mail. Jason came out to join me on the couch. “I’ve seen that video like a hundred times,” he said.

“Me too. So where should we go for dinner?”

“I dunno. Sushi?”

“I’d like sushi. Anything but pizza, really.”

Lucy overheard our discussion. “You are not invited,” she said, her back to us.

“Excuse me?”

“You are not invited to dinner.”

Jason rolled his eyes. I was surprised. “Are you saying that you are taking the kids on my night, and I am not invited?”

“That’s right.”

“Huh. Well, how about that?” I shrugged to Jason and went to the other room.

I was not going to get into it with her in front of the kids.

As they prepared to go, Jason said he would see me later.

“You’re not joining us?” Richard asked.

“No, he isn’t,” Lucy answered, tying Lillie’s shoes.

“But Dad,” Collie asked, “What will you eat?”

“I’ll eat something here, don’t worry. I’ll see you afterwards.”

Jason looked at Collie, holding a finger to his lips. At the door, I told Richard it was great to see him again. I took his face in my hands and kissed his lips. As we do.

Lillie watched. She laughed. “You kissed a man! That is so gay.”

Richard feigned shock. He took Lillie’s hand. “Let’s just begin to discuss all the ways that is an inappropriate thing to say,” he said, leading her down the hall.

I closed the door. I was famished. I ate a simple dinner.

I emailed Lucy.

Lucy, I spent the day telling the kids we were having dinner with you and Richard. It came as a shock that this was not the case. It came as a greater shock that you chose to tell me this in front of Jason. Can we please do better?

Also, you need to respect that when you are at the apartment, you are in my home. You are not invited to go through my belongings. If you need to see something, just ask.

I was hurt and angry, and took great care in choosing my words. I recognize that Lucy is not entirely to blame for her moods. There is something about me that makes her furious. I regard her outbursts as akin to those sparked by Tourette’s Syndrome: unpleasant, and not entirely within her control. I try not to let it get to me.

Still, I am resolved to point out when she crosses a line. Being rude to me in front of the children is not acceptable behavior.

The email was deleted the next day, unread.

“What did you eat for dinner?” Lillie asked when they returned.

“Some pasta. How was the Chinese?”

“It was so good! Why didn’t Mom let you come?”

“Um, I don’t know, honey.”

“Yeah, that sucked,” Jason said.

“I’m glad you ate,” Collie said. “I was worried. I brought you a fortune cookie, you want it?”

The kids went back to their mom the following day. I left town on a short trip. When I returned, I found an email from Lucy.

The judge signed our agreement. I guess that’s it.

A few days later, I received an envelope from my lawyer.

Dear Henry,

Enclosed please find an executed Findings of Fact and Conclusion of Law and a Judgment of Divorce. Congratulations, you are divorced!

I remain,

Yours truly,

Elizabeth Weiner, Esq.

Enclosure

Also enclosed was a bill for seven thousand three hundred and forty-five dollars.

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“Do it again, Dad, like Kermit!” I did it again, like Kermit. Lillie laughed.

“Okay, now do it like the Martian!” I did it again, like the Warner Brothers’ Martian. She laughed.

We came back from our southern sojourn with a fresh batch of inside jokes.

Collie and Lillie developed my favorite. Whenever someone did something that didn’t quite go over—like a joke that wasn’t so funny, or a dive that went awry—they would curl a lip and affect scorn by saying, “Tee of the hee.”

“Tee of the hee” is the funniest thing I know.

One afternoon, as we sat on the pier, I absentmindedly began to sing “Hollaback Girl” in the voice of Johnny Cash. Collie giggled.

“Dad, you are singing that like a man!”

“Son, I am singing it like the Man in Black. Want to hear me sing it like Bruce Springsteen?”

That became my main contribution to the family act: I could sing “Hollaback Girl” in ridiculously matched voices. I pulled out my standard repertoire of imitation, including, but not limited to, the following:

Bill Clinton (“I did not hollaback to that woman.”)

Squidward (“SpongeBob, would you please not hollaback?”)

Bert and Ernie (“Hey, uh, Bert old buddy, old buddy Bert, wanna hear Rubber Ducky hollaback?”)

Shaggy (“Zoinks! I’m sure I heard something hollaback from that way—so I’m going this way.”)

And so I went, though Goofy, Mickey Mouse, Elmer Fudd, and the rest. (For the record, I could also do Lurch, Roy Orbison, Richard Nixon and Iggy Pop, but they don’t play so well with the elementary school set.)

It was a long drive north. I needed all the material I had. We were scheduled to return the kids to their mother on a Monday. That was the end of my allotted vacation time. It also happened to be Lillie’s sixth birthday.

Of course we threw a party for her down south. Of course we celebrated again with Rachel. Lillie was going to get one more party from my folks before she went to her mom for yet another party.

Children of divorce suffer some deprivations. On the up side, they sometimes get the lions’ share of birthday parties.

My dad was concerned about making good time on the drive back, so we left the south with a few days to spare. After our visit with Rachel, we were scheduled to return to New York on Saturday night.

Dad proposed that we have dinner in Chinatown. He craved the grilled sea bass at Nha Thrang on Mulberry Street.

“I love that fish,” Jason drooled.

“It has eyes!” Collie recalled.

“Next stop: Chinatown,” I called from the driver’s seat.

Nothing stood between us and dinner except the Holland Tunnel. And an hour of stop-and-go traffic.

“Dad, I’m sta-aa-aarving,” Lillie moaned. My father plied her with cookies. The cell phone rang. It was Lucy.

“Hello, Henry. Are you still in Virginia?”

“No, actually, we are stuck in traffic in the Holland Tunnel.”

“You are already in New York?”

“That’s right. We plan to be in Chinatown for dinner.”

“Well, were you going to invite me?”

“Uh, would you care to join us?”

Mom rolled her eyes.

“Henry, I haven’t seen the kids in so long! Please! I really need to see them!”

“Lucy, you are more than welcome to join us.”

“Thanks. Can I talk to the kids?” I passed the phone back.

“Is the bitch coming to dinner?” Mom whispered.

“Looks like sea bass is not the only fishy thing on the menu.”

We finally made our way to Mulberry Street. We parked in a lot. Lucy had scored street parking outside the restaurant.

“Mom, mom!” Lillie called, running along the sidewalk. “Look at the unicorn I got for my birthday! She’s a cheerleader, like me.”

“That’s so nice, Lillie,” Lucy said, dropping to her knee. She took her daughter in her arms. “I really missed you!”

“I missed you too.”

“Mom, look at my tan!” Collie shouted, running behind.

Lucy hugged the kids, then my parents. “You made good time,” she said, standing apart from me.

“We did indeed. We didn’t want to be in a rush for the weekend.”

Funny thing about Nha Trang. If you go single or as a couple, the wait for a table can be very long. But when we go as a large family with children, we are seated immediately. We were guided to a square table squeezed against a wall. I instinctively took a chair against the wall, leaving the more flexible seats to my parents and the kids.

Lucy began to do the same before noticing that we would be sitting next to one another. She grimaced. “Here, Lillie, you sit next to your dad, and I’ll sit next to you.”

Mom raised an eyebrow in my direction. I shrugged. That’s right, Mom, I replied telepathically. Lucy can’t sit next to me. ‘Cause I’ve got cooties.

“Mom, Dad can sing ‘Hollaback Girl’ like Squidward,” Collie grinned. “You want to hear?”

“I think I’ll pass,” she said, looking away,

Lillie leaned to me. “Tee of the hee,” she whispered.

Lucy and I ordered beer with dinner.

We passed around plates full of dumplings, sugar cane and mint. We devoured chicken, pork and shrimp. Lillie was mesmerized by the grilled sea bass. She stared at its eye. “Can it see me?” she asked.

“No, dear, it can’t see you.”

“Can I take the bones home? I want to investigate it.”

“Uh, sure, that’s fine,” I said. “My birthday gift to you.”

“Dad! You can’t give bones as a birthday present!”

After dinner, as we walked into Little Italy for dessert.

As we waited for our vehicle to be retrieved, Collie burst into tears. I was holding his hand. “Sweetie, what’s wrong?” I asked. Lucy looked over.

“I want to go home with Mom,” he cried.

“Oh that’s fine,” Lucy said. “You can go home with me.”

“But I want to go home with Dad too.”

Collie’s dilemma. He was tired. He wanted to go home with Mom and Dad. But Mom and Dad don’t live together.

Technically, according to the custody agreement, the kids were supposed to be with me for another couple of days. But now Lucy had introduced the prospect of staying with her—and he had not seen her in a couple of weeks.

“Lucy,” I said. “If you want to take Collie, that’s fine.”

“Okay, I’ll bring him back in the morning.”

“But I want to go with Dad, too.”

“Honey,” Lucy said. “You can’t do both things. It’s not possible. So you are coming home with me.” My permission became Lucy’s direction: Collie was to go with her.

“Okay,” he sniffled.

Of course, Lillie wanted to go where Collie went. If they were going to Mom’s, Jason said he may as well go too. I didn’t object. The kids missed their mother and I already had an apartment full with my parents.

We drove off in the same direction. I could see Collie crying in the back seat of Lucy’s car, the car we once shared, the car my dad found for us.

Lillie waved. Lucy kept her eyes locked ahead. We parted ways on the West Side Highway.

At home, we unloaded the car. By a miracle, I found a great parking space near my building. The car would not have to be moved until Tuesday when my parents were heading back. The parking space saved us a bundle in garage fees.

The next morning, I awoke about ten. I was worn out from the trip.

Mom and Dad were up. They wanted to go out to brunch. When we returned, there was still no word from Lucy. I assumed the kids were beat and sleeping it off.

Noon passed. We read the paper. No word.

I finally called her around two.

“Lucy, is everything all right? We were expecting the kids this morning.”

“Everything is fine.”

“Did they sleep late?”

“No, we’ve been up since before eight or so.” I could sense where this was going.

“Well, okay, so what time are you bringing the kids?”

“Actually, Henry,” she sighed. “I have a lot of work to do, and it’s not really convenient for me to bring them.”

“Well, Lucy, you know I am supposed to have them today. We have plans with my parents . . .”

“The kids have been with your parents for over two weeks. They can be with me now.”

“Lucy, my parents are only here for another two days, and we have plans for Lillie’s birthday.”

“It’s really not convenient for me to bring them. Sorry.” When she begins to repeat herself, I brace for the next thing—she will hang up on me.

“Lucy,” I said, calmly. “I know you missed the kids. And they are back with you tomorrow. But right now, we have plans with the kids.”

Sigh. “Look, fine. You come get the kids, and I’ll get them later tonight.”

“Well, actually, they would be here overnight. And I don’t want to move our car. It’s in a great spot, and if we lose it, we’ll have to put the car in a garage.”

“Henry, why are you being so difficult? You bring the kids, I pick them up. It’s easy. Why can’t you compromise?”

How did I wind up being the difficult one?

“Lucy, that is not a compromise. We had a plan, and you changed the plan. And now you say your new plan is the compromise solution.”

“Look, that’s the way it is. I really have to go.”

“Wait, are you there?”

“Yes.”

“Good, you didn’t hang up. Look, let me talk to my parents and call you back.”

“Fine.” Click.

I explained the situation to my parents. “Next time you get married, would you please not marry a bitch?” my mother said.

“You can pick my next wife. Obviously, I can’t manage that. So what do you want to do?”

“Well,” Dad said. “It’s kind of late to do much anyway. Can we see them tomorrow, on Lillie’s birthday?”

“It’s Lucy’s day,” I said, “But I can ask.”

I called Lucy. She liked the plan. She would bring the kids in the morning, and spend the day with us. Of course. That way, my parents pay for the birthday thrills and she wouldn’t have to.

“And you will really bring them?” I said. “Not like today?”

“Yes, Henry, I will bring them,” she sighed.

“Ten o’clock?”

“Fine. Look Henry, I’m sorry this is so hard. One day we’ll be friends again, and it will be easier. Okay?”

“I’d much prefer that.”

“Fine. See you tomorrow.”

“Wait, can I talk to the . . .”

She was gone.

I really do hope, in my heart of hearts, that Lucy and I become friends again. It was so painful to lose the best friend I had for fifteen years, only to have her replaced by this . . . well, bitch. Mom called it right.

But for now, with her behavior, I am watching the clock. By court order, we have to remain civil co-parents for twelve years. On Lillie’s eighteenth birthday, we have legally fulfilled our obligations toward one another. After that, with things as they are, if I only see Lucy at weddings and funerals, that is fine with me.

That night, my parents and I went out for Mexican and saw The Forty-Year-Old Virgin.

The next day, we took Lucy and the kids out for pizza and bowling. We strolled the Village and had coffee and cake at a café.

Lillie had a splendid birthday. Lucy took the kids home that night.

The next morning, I helped my parents pack. I kissed them, hugged their necks and thanked them for everything.

“I love you, Hank,” Mom said.

“I love you Mom. I love you Dad.”

“I love you son. Party on!”

“The party continues!”

Dad turned up Willie Nelson, and they were on the road again.

I waved and watched as the car drove south.

I felt relieved as I walked to the subway. The vacation was over. Now I could rest.

I went to Mitzi’s apartment.

We were up all night.

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On the drive south, and again on the return journey, my family charted a course through the Shenandoah Valley to visit with my daughter, Rachel.

Originally, the plan had been to pick up Rachel on the way down and return her on the way back, as is our annual custom. We were particularly keen for her to join us this year, for she is at an age—seventeen—which may offer one of her last flexible summers before her life is wrapped up in boyfriends, jobs and college.

Alas, Rachel has always been precocious. She already had too much on her plate to manage a three-week excursion to the Deep South.

Last spring, she graduated high school a year early, leaving her with a few divergent options. Should she stay at home and work for a year, to save money? Should she fulfill our shared fantasy and join me in New York?

She wondered: should she pursue college admissions in her home state, and live near her mom and dad, or in New York, to live with her dad, or maybe in California, near her other dad? And if she did move, what would that mean to her ten younger siblings?

Rachel’s family ties are complex, perhaps a fact of life when a girl has three fathers.

Rachel’s mother Emily and I were never formally in a relationship. The conception of our daughter was due to a certain convergence of coincidences.

The winter of nineteen-eighty-seven was unusually snowy. Because of this, classes were canceled at my college, and I found myself one night drinking at the bar tended by my roommate, Jetboy.

I had long blonde hair. Because of this, Emily felt compelled to braid my hair as I sat at the bar. While I didn’t know Emily very well, I did like her physical resemblance to Molly Ringwald. I also liked that she was so fond of my hair. It felt nice to have her touch it.

When Jetboy returned to our apartment that night, he walked in on Emily and me having sex.

He would get accustomed to the sight. For the rest of that winter and into the spring, Emily and I fucked and fucked.

She would hang out with her friends at the dorm, smoking pot and listening to bootlegged cassettes of Grateful Dead concerts. When she was good and baked, she would call me and ask to come over.

I always said yes.

Emily and I each had a “real” relationship back home. Our nights together provided a salutary opportunity for sex while we were at school.

Jetboy didn’t mind at all. He thought it was cool that we went at it regardless of his presence, though he declined our occasional entreaties to join us.

As the academic year drew to a close, Emily and I prepared to return to our lives back home. I happened to be at the dorm when her boyfriend arrived to help her move. I shook his hand and helped Emily load her things into his pickup truck. She waved goodbye and smiled as they drove away. I waved and smiled in return.

In July, I heard through the grapevine that Emily was two months pregnant.

I counted backwards.

I called her.

Emily confirmed that yes, she was pregnant and yes, the child was mine. But her boyfriend assumed it was his, and she preferred to keep it that way.

She said she would not be back in school for the coming year.

Emily was nineteen. I was twenty-two.

I had made an erroneous assumption. My real girlfriend Pablo and I relied on her birth control pills. I assumed that any woman who didn’t insist on condoms was on the pill. Emily seemed unconcerned about birth control, so I figured she was all set.

Turns out she wasn’t on the Pill. Turns out she was opposed to birth control. Abortion too, for that matter. So she was going to have my baby and raise it with her boyfriend.

I might never meet my child.

Needless to say, I was a little distracted as I began my senior year. I had a very big secret to keep.

When I returned home for Christmas break, my family was poised for a great milestone: my brother Jesse and his wife Teri were expecting their first child. My parents, then in their mid-forties, were about to become grandparents.

Just before New Year’s Day, I was with my family in a hospital waiting room when Jesse came out, his eyes tearing, to announce the birth of my nephew Tracy.

I hugged him, crying.

A week later, in a hospital in rural Virginia, my daughter was born. Emily named her Rachel Ann.

No one in my family knew. Very few friends knew.

I called Emily every few days to check on her and to listen to our baby gurgle and cry.

A few months later, after graduation, I began to date Lucy.

One summer night, as we lay in bed nude, sweating under a fan, listening to Wire, I told Lucy I had some things to confess.

First, I’m bisexual.

Second, I have a daughter I’ve never met.

I knew that her mother and brother were gay, and that her father had left the family when Lucy was four. I tried to joke that by being a queer absent father, I was either perfect for her, or the worst possible match.

She held my hand.

“You are not bisexual if you are with me,” she said into the night. “And you have to meet your daughter.”

She convinced me. I went to Virginia to meet my six-month-old baby girl.

Rachel had blue eyes like her mother and me. She had wispy blonde hair. She had her mother’s soft open mouth. I held her, scared and nervous.

I kissed them both goodbye at four that afternoon. I had to be out of the house when Rachel’s real father returned from work.

I told Lucy how amazing it had been to hold my daughter.

“I’m sure,” she said. “When will you see her again?” I hadn’t thought of that. Of course, I should see her again.

I invited Emily to bring the baby to visit me. She agreed, and I drove out to pick them up.

By this time, Rachel was walking.

I wasn’t ready for Lucy to meet Emily and Rachel. That was just too weird, I thought.

“I can wait,” Lucy said. “But will you be sleeping with Emily?”

“We haven’t had sex in over a year,” I said. “But what difference would it make if we did?”

“It will make a difference to me,” she said.

I agreed that my sexual relationship with Emily was over.

For a weekend, Emily and I took care of Rachel. Our baby toddled around my room, knocking down books and chewing on album covers. She slept between us at night. Rachel is blurry in every photograph from that weekend, unless she was sleeping.

In time, Lucy would meet Emily and Rachel. We traveled out to see them fairly often, always when her boyfriend was away. I took photographs of my beautiful baby, her beautiful mom, and my beautiful girlfriend, smiling, playing, enjoying one another.

This works, I thought. I can’t believe it, but it works.

One day Emily called to say she was leaving her boyfriend. She was in love with someone else, a guy I had never met named Phil. They were taking Rachel and driving to San Francisco the next day.

I tried to talk her out of doing anything rash. I realized I had absolutely no say in the matter. Emily could do whatever she wanted with our daughter.

Lucy convinced Emily to talk with a friend of ours, a family lawyer who would at least offer some advice. Emily agreed.

She took only one part of our friend’s advice. She left a note for her boyfriend saying she was gone for good, and she was taking the baby.

The baby, she added, is not yours. With that, she was gone.

A few months later, Lucy and I flew to San Francisco. We visited their tiny apartment in the shadow of a freeway overpass. We took Rachel to the Presidio and the zoo.

Emily was pregnant. She seemed very happy.

At Christmas, she received a summons. Her ex-boyfriend was suing for custody of Rachel.

Emily and the baby were to appear in court in Virginia, in a small town where the ex-boyfriend’s father was a leading figure. Of course, Lucy and I drove down for the hearings.

When the ex-boyfriend and his family arrived at court for the first hearing, they saw me with Emily. I was holding Rachel. His mother blanched. Rachel was a carbon copy of me.

The ex boyfriend had promised to be civil in these proceedings. He was a sweet guy, and he had my sympathy: his child had been taken away. But I also knew that if he had custody, my tenuous relationship with Rachel would be severed. He had no reason to keep me around as another father.

Emily had a court appointed lawyer who seemed unfamiliar with her case.

His lawyer stood to say that Emily was a pot dealer and devotee of the Grateful Dead. She represented a flight risk as she had already left for San Francisco; furthermore, she was obliged to follow the Grateful Dead to all concerts.

This was pure fabrication. Emily didn’t follow Dead shows. And while she and her ex boyfriend both smoked, it was he who was the dealer.

No matter. The judge concurred with his argument, and ruled that while the case was being decided, Rachel was better off with her father and his family, community members of good standing.

Rachel was taken from Emily’s arms and placed in those of her ex-boyfriend’s mother.

Emily screamed.

Lucy and I were shocked. Our friend the family lawyer had told us that babies generally remain with the mother during a custody battle unless there was a clear danger to the child.

Outside the courthouse, Lucy took Emily by the shoulders. Both were crying.

“Listen to me, Emily. Listen to me!” she said, looking to her eyes. “I am calling my family. We are paying for you to have a real lawyer. You are not losing Rachel. Do you hear me?”

Emily nodded, too stunned to do otherwise.

Lucy called her family. Lucy called lawyers. Lucy wrote checks.

I signed affidavits asserting my paternity. I offered myself for blood tests. I initiated my long relationship with the sovereign government of the State of Virginia.

When the judge issued a final ruling, Rachel stayed with Emily.

That summer, Lucy sat with me as I told my parents I had “important news.” I held Lucy’s hands in my lap.

I was with my girlfriend, but we looked somber. This was clearly not an announcement of our engagement.

My friend Donnie had already been diagnosed with AIDS. Mom looked as if she might cry.

“I’m sorry I have taken so long to tell you this,” I said, swallowing hard. “But you have another grandchild.”

Dad looked confused. Mom suddenly smiled. “You and Lucy are expecting?” she asked.

Lucy and I stumbled over one another to tell the story.

That night, the four of us were in a car driving toward Rachel.

As I made introductions, my parents shook hands with Phil. They rubbed Emily’s bulging belly.

And they fell in love with their granddaughter.

In time, Emily and her ex-boyfriend made peace. He remained a part of Rachel’s life. She refers to him as her “other dad.”

Emily and Phil got married. They traveled around for a while, then settled down in Virginia. They had seven children after Rachel, each pregnancy unplanned but welcome. Rachel helped to deliver each of her siblings.

Emily and I settled into a kind of fraternal relationship. I love her like a sister. We agree on very few things: my Deadhead hippy fuck buddy became a born-again fundamentalist who home schools her kids and insists that they attend rallies against gay marriage.

Whatever. We’re family.

My parents and children mingled with Rachel’s full family this summer. My kids played with Rachel’s other siblings, riding skateboards, chasing her dog, and holding the baby.

There were too few moments for Rachel and I to be alone, but we drank those moments in great gulps.

For now, Rachel has decided to wait about leaving her hometown. She loves New York, she told me, but this is home. She enrolled in a community college. She continues to work as a waitress at a cool café. And she got her own place. She lives in a cabin with a fireplace, a pool and a big Jacuzzi tub. Her Beatles memorabilia lines the walls.

She pays for school and her cabin with the money she earns. Her brothers and sisters take turns sleeping over, when she wants company.

My parents and I took her to Wal-Mart to help fix up her place. She asked me for a Bodum coffee carafe like mine.

Shortly after I returned to New York, I received a card from my daughter.

Hey Dad,

It was so great to see you and everybody last week. I am writing this on my patio with some great coffee—thanks!

I’m so sorry I couldn’t go south this year. When can I come up to New York? Maybe for my eighteenth birthday. Then we can smoke cigarettes and watch porn—you know, the usual, but now it will be legal.

I love you Dad. Call me!

Rachel

PS When is my boyfriend Marcus coming to New York? Maybe at my birthday? I know you think he is yours, but he is mine. Ha ha!

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