One afternoon before collecting the children from school, I met my friend Yael for lunch.
Yael and I work in the same field, and we have known each other for over a decade. We’ve collaborated on more projects than I can count. We are charter members of our mutual admiration society.
In many respects, we have enjoyed parallel careers, but different lives. I am newly divorced with children. She has recently married for the first time, finally making an honest man of her longtime live-in boyfriend. They have no interest in becoming parents.
“Look how gray you are!” I kissed her cheek when we met.
“Isn’t it awful?” she said, hugging me. “And you are too thin.”
“Nah. Live fast and die young, right?”
“I think you are pushing the clock on that aspiration.”
We crammed into a tiny table at Le Pain Quotidien. I let her order for us.
We gossiped over lunch. She is incredibly well connected, which offers a very nice counterpoint to my current state of mind, more concerned with parenting and dating than with networking. I ate up her gossip, glad to be in the loop on the latest.
She enjoys news on the ongoing soap opera of my new life. I spare the most salacious details but I give her enough to get her going.
We were asked if we wanted coffee or dessert. I agreed to coffee. “Would you object to sharing a cookie?” Yael asked. “They really are good here.” I allowed that I would take a nibble. We were served a chocolate chip cookie the size of saucer. She tore off bits as we talk. I took my requisite nibble.
She claimed the check when it arrived. “We talked about work,” she said, opening her wallet. “I can expense it.”
“Tell me in advance next time,” I teased, “So I can order without looking at the right side of the menu.”
As we pulled on our coats, I saw that there was still half a cookie left. I wrapped it in a paper napkin. “Can’t waste a cookie when there are kids to feed.”
“Oh God, yes! Should we get another to go?”
“No, this is just a bonus. No need for more.”
She was heading west, and I was heading east. We hugged at the door. “I’m glad things are going well with you and the husband,” I said, kissing her cheek.
“Yeah, and good luck with dating,” she replied. “Just remember my advice: it is just as easy to fall for someone wealthy as it is to fall for someone poor.” I laughed. “I mean it!” She held up a finger. “Don’t let me hear that you have fallen for a willowy starving artist.”
“I promise. No starving artists for me.”
“Good. Be well, Henry.”
I smiled as she walked off. Yael and I always inspire optimism in one another. I tucked the cookie in my pocket, feeling pretty good about life.
I found Lillie in the schoolyard, huddled against a wall. Her hair was in her face. She looked cross. “What’s up, Lillie? Are you sad?”
“Mmmrph!” Lillie whined. This signals that she does not want to talk about it.
“Well, maybe you will tell me later. Here,” I reached into my pocket. “You want half this cookie?”
Lillie looked up. “What is it?”
“Chocolate chip.” I broke the cookie in two. “You want?”
She nodded and examined the two halves. One was slightly larger. She took it. She scrunched back against the wall, crumbs falling on her coat.
“Hey Dad.” Collie tossed his backpack at my feet. “Hey, where did she get that cookie?”
“Same place you got this one,” I said, holding out the napkin.
“Oh yeah, chocolate chip!” Collie grabbed the cookie and took a bite. “So Lillie had an accident in school today.”
“Is that true, Lillie?” I realized she was sitting so that no one could see the seat of her pants.
She had been having “accidents” lately, at school and in bed. She refuses to go to the bathroom until the very last moment, which is too often one moment too late.
“Mmmrph!” She was clearly embarrassed.
“Don’t worry,” I said, lifting the hair from her eyes. “You can put on dry clothes at home.”
“That’s all I’m saying.”
Collie watched, chewing his cookie.
Lucy was also at school, as she had plans with Collie afterward. She found us by the wall. “Hi Collie, hi Lillie!” she said, ignoring my presence. “How was school? What’s wrong with you, Lillie?”
“She had an accident at school,” Collie said.
“Oh, did you?” Lucy said, her face darkening. “And where did you get that cookie?”
“Dad gave it to her,” Collie said.
“Oh, he did?” Lucy leaned forward and snatched the cookie from Lillie’s hand, just as she was taking a bite.
“Hey!” Lillie said.
“No cookie for you,” Lucy said, crushing it into crumbs. “You don’t get rewards for having accidents.” Lucy shot me a look, “you moron” written on her face. She brushed the crumbs from her hands as if washing her hands of me.
Collie took another bite of his cookie.
“C’mon Collie, we need to go.” Lucy took Collie’s hand and picked up his backpack. She walked away without looking back.
She didn’t see Lillie crying. “C’mon Lillie,” I whispered. “Let’s go home.” Lillie stood and put her hand in mine. She kept her eyes on her shoes as we walked.
Lucy says she has a “no tolerance” policy for Lillie’s accidents. She insists that Lillie go to the bathroom at bedtime, and at certain times of the day, whether she needs to go or not. Lillie can pee or not pee, but she will sit on the toilet at those times. Lucy enlists Lillie’s brothers to help enforce the rule. If she has an accident, the boys are to report it and to tell Lillie she did a bad thing.
I don’t play along.
I have told the boys they are not to humiliate their sister while they are with me.
Not that it comes up, really. She doesn’t have accidents at my place. It’s pretty clear to me that this is really a pissing match between mother and daughter. At issue: control.
Lucy is determined to make Lillie control her bladder according to her mother’s demands. Lillie is determined to prove that she is in control of her own bathroom schedule. She won’t bend, even at the cost of wetting herself.
It’s the wrong battle for each of them. Lillie knows that her mother is in control of most things, but she has found one thing that she can control—her body—and she is not budging.
If Lucy listened to me, I would tell her what I tell the boys: if you make a big deal about this, it will become a big deal. If you can treat the symptom—getting to the bathroom on time—without challenging Lillie’s sense of self-control, you will get better results from her.
But Lucy does not listen to me. Lucy continues to confront her daughter, and so Lucy continues to wash sheets every day.
Later that week, Jason celebrated his twelfth birthday. His mother and I planned a birthday party with his friends on the following weekend, when the kids would be with Lucy. I would join them for football in the snow.
The actual birthday fell on a school day, when the kids were with me. The day before, Jason came to me holding his cell phone near his ear. “Dad, are we doing anything special for dinner tomorrow night?”
“Well, I am making burritos, as you requested. Why do you ask?”
“One minute,” Jason said. He spoke into the phone. “Uh yeah, so Dad is making burritos. Okay . . . okay.” He looked back at me. “Can Mom come over tomorrow night?”
“Is that your mother on the phone?”
“Sure, your mother can come to dinner tomorrow night.”
“Okay. Mom? He says you can come. Okay . . . I’ll ask. Dad, she says she’ll bring cupcakes and be here at six.”
“That’s fine, though we will eat closer to seven thirty.”
“Okay. Mom? He says dinner will be ready at seven thirty. Okay . . . okay . . . Dad, she says she’ll be here at seven.”
“That’s fine, Jason.”
“Mom? He says that’s fine. You need me for anything else, Dad?”
“No, you can finish your conversation with your mother.”
“Thanks.” Jason went off to answer his mother’s questions about the homework he and I had already completed.
Ever since she gave Jason his new cell phone, Lucy has seen no reason to call me about the children. She can get all the information she needs from Jason, and use him as an intermediary when she requires anything specific from me.
She’s got it under control.
The next evening, Lucy arrived with cupcakes and presents. I gave her a beer left from her previous meal with us as she settled in with the kids. I went back to the kitchen to cook. “Jason, do you want to open your presents now?” Lucy asked.
“Sure!” he said.
“I want to help!” Collie said.
“Me too!” Lillie said.
“Just a second,” I called, pouring rice into boiling chicken stock. “I can be out in a moment.”
“Hurry, don’t make us wait.” Lucy called.
I covered the rice, lowered the heat and wiped my hands. “On my way.”
When Lillie saw me, she grabbed a package and began to tear into it. “No, Lillie,” Lucy said, taking the package. “You need to wait! These are Jason’s presents. Control yourself.”
“But I want to . . . “ Lillie began.
“I don’t care what you want, you need to wait.” Lillie crossed her arms and frowned. “You can be as mad as you want, but you need to control yourself,” Lucy said.
Lillie stuck out her tongue. Lucy stuck out her tongue.
Lillie looked around. She began to cry.
She ran to her bedroom. “Hang on, guys,” I said, and followed.
Lillie was curled on a pillow, sucking her thumb and holding a blanket. She sobbed as tears ran down her cheeks.
I sat next to her. “I’m sorry that made you sad,” I said, petting her hair. “You know Jason will let you open presents. We just need to take turns.”
“Mom is so mean,” she sobbed. “I hate her.”
“I know you are sad about that. Why don’t you take a moment to recover? We will wait until you join us to open presents. Okay?” She sniffed and nodded. I returned to the living room.
“Should I talk to her, or will that make it worse?” Lucy asked.
“Let’s give her a minute. Do you mind waiting, Jason?”
Jason shrugged, not looking up.
“Well, I think I should talk to her,” Lucy said, standing. She went to the bedroom. A few minutes later, she came out, holding Lillie’s hand. Lillie held her blanket, her thumb in her mouth.
Jason offered his sister a present to open. She took it and slowly tore away the paper.
Lucy was very talkative at dinner. She’s usually loquacious, all the more so when she is nervous. I watched as she spoke with the kids. Her rapid speech had the kids rushing to keep up. They were like other children in their interactions with her.
Lucy prodded Jason for details about his tardy return home that evening. “There’s no story there, Mom,” he replied, sullen.
“That makes me think there must be a story!” Lucy laughed sardonically.
“Mom, I am telling you: there is no story. None.”
“Okay, now you have to tell me the story.” Collie’s head moved back and forth as he followed their volleys.
“Mom, read my lips.” Jason was agitated. His voice rose. “There. Is. No. Story!”
“So why were you late?”
“I. Missed. The. Bus. I. Took. Another. Bus. The. End.”
“Why didn’t you just say that, then?”
“Urgh!” Jason threw up his hands, rolling his eyes.
Before dinner was over, Lucy had Collie in tears over something having to do with a turtle. Lillie tried to interrupt, but was told to wait her turn. Her turn never came.
I cleared the table.
We served cupcakes, with candles for all the children.
Shortly after, Lucy left. “Thanks for dinner, Henry,” she said at the door.
“Sure,” I said.
I closed the door, locking it for the night.
The next day, Lucy called MCI and cut off my phone service.
When my phone died recently, Lucy overreacted by emailing her parents and mine to complain of my “irresponsibility” and inaccessibility. I had learned of Lucy’s panic only after replacing the broken phone.
Our families wrote off Lucy’s behavior as one of those things.
As she fretted about her lack of control over my telephone, she realized that my phone bill was in both of our names. This was a hangover of our days with a shared bank account. I had never switched the service over to my new bank account; it simply never occurred to me to do so.
Lucy insisted that the service be put in my name exclusively. Fair enough.
MCI required that we both be on the phone to authorize the transfer. Fair enough.
It didn’t occur to us to make a three-way phone call. Instead, we decided to make the call one day when we were together, presumably when transferring the kids.
Unfortunately, she is barely speaking to me, and so our interactions are as succinct as possible. We are usually distracted when dropping off or picking up the kids, and so we neglected to take care of the phone.
Now and then, she would email terse reminders that this needed to be done. Each time, I agreed, saying we should remember then next time we were together.
We remembered one afternoon. Lucy made the call, but grew impatient with MCI’s automated process. “I don’t have time for this,” she complained, closing her cell phone. “We’ll do it next time.”
“Sounds good,” I said. “No rush.”
We forgot once again on the night she invited herself to dinner for Jason’s birthday. Apparently, it was not a huge priority. But somehow, it became a priority for Lucy the next day. With no further notice to me, she cancelled the service.
One month, she panics because my phone is temporarily out of service. The next, she discontinues my service. As her father told me over the holidays: these things don’t make sense. This is just how they are.
I contacted MCI to continue the service. I was told this would not be a problem, so long as Lucy and I were on the line to authorize the change in her order to cancel the service.
We had three days to do so, or I would lose my telephone number.
I sent Lucy an email. I reminded her that my number is an emergency contact for the children, and said we now had the exact same situation—we had to make this call—but now we had a deadline.
She agreed to stop at my place after work.
Six o’clock passed. Seven o’clock. I called her. She was home.
She had forgotten.
Okay, I said. I will come to your office tomorrow. She agreed.
The next afternoon, I left my work to travel across town. We called MCI. She cancelled her order to discontinue service. I authorized service to continue in my name. It took half an hour of passing a cell phone back and forth, but it was settled.
A month later, I was at my desk when my friend Meg sent an instant message.
Dude, your phone is disconnected.
I picked up my phone. It was dead. I contacted MCI. They had no record of our call to cancel Lucy’s order. The service had been discontinued, per her original instruction.
The phone could be back in service, I was told, in about two weeks. But the number was lost.
I contacted Verizon and was told that a new number could be had in a few days. MCI lost a customer.
A few days later, my new phone number was up and running. That same day, I lost my DSL. That account had been linked to the original number. When that number vanished, the DSL went with it. I contacted Verizon, the DSL provider, and learned that a new contract would be necessary, as my new phone number represented a new account.
Service could resume in about one week.
I contacted schools, friends, family and colleagues with my new number. I waited for my DSL to return. I was furious at Lucy for being so unnecessarily vindictive and impulsive.
But my fury passed. I looked on the bright side: Now, my phone is one more thing no longer in Lucy’s control.