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Archive for January, 2006

Control

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.”

“Mmmrph!”

“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.”

“Mmmrph.”

“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.

“Mmmrph!”

“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?”

“Yeah.”

“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.

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The girls were still asleep when I returned home from taking the kids to school. I kicked off my shoes, hung my coat, and put on a kettle for coffee. I settled to work, but I could not let the girls sleep too late. It was their last day in the city, and we still had many things to do.

The giggling began around ten.

I brought them coffee, expressing the optimistic hope that we could be out the door by eleven. Two coffees, two showers, two blow dries later, we were on our way by a quarter ‘til.

Our first stop was Rockefeller Center. We weren’t concerned with the tree. We had seen that on their first night in town, having walked up from Times Square.

That first night, they were duly impressed with the backdrop. I photographed them in front of the tree twice, once for each of their cameras. I must have looked like a good photographer, as a Portuguese family asked me to snap them as well with their camera.

As we walked back towards Sixth Avenue, I pointed out the Today show set. “Yeah, I never watch that,” Rachel said.

“Me neither,” Stevie said.

“Nor I,” I said. “But I’m just the tour guide here, just pointing out the sights. Maybe we should be thinking about a cab . . .”

I looked back down the street, not watching where I was going. I walked full into Stevie. “Oh, geez, I’m sorry, are you okay?”

She seemed not to notice. “Whoa.” She looked up at a window.

“Yeah, wow.” Rachel said.

“What?” I asked.

Rachel pointed up at a life-sized cardboard cut out of Sam Waterson. “Do they seriously sell ‘Friends’ stuff?”

“Um, sure. That’s the NBC Store.”

Rachel looked at Stevie. “Okay, we are so coming back here when they are open.”

Stevie pointed. “Oh my God, they have ‘Scrubs’ stuff!”

They spent long moments marveling at the NBC merchandise—more time than they spent gazing at the nine-story Christmas tree.

And so it was that their final day in New York began with a trip to the NBC Store, or rather, the “NBC Experience,” as it is marketed. They shopped, pulling one another from one array to t-shirts to another. I dawdled at the skimpy bookcases, filled with titles by Al Roker and stars of “Days of Our Lives.”

I watched Milton Berle on a vintage monitor. And Bob Hope. That reminded me, I keep meaning to pick up the Gary Giddins biography of Bing Crosby. Such an interesting subject for a biography, I thought . . . one could really follow much of twentieth century pop culture through the crooner’s career . . .

“Hey Dad!”

“Huh? Oh, yes, Rachel?”

“Spacing out there?”

“Maybe so. Finding anything?”

“Yeah, lots! We’re going upstairs. They have a thing where you can get your picture made on the ‘Friends’ couch.”

“Oh, cool. I’ll come along.”

Rachel and Stevie picked up coffee cups and posed on green blocks against a green backdrop. A man pushed a button, and the girls watched a monitor as the Central Perk appeared around them.

“Awesome!” Rachel said.

“Smile!” the man called. The girls picked up two sets of prints, a couple of t-shirts and some magnets.

“That was pretty cool!” Stevie said as we hit the street.

“Yeah, we’ll have to wear our shirts when we watch your first season DVDs.”

“Yeah, and drink coffee in my CNN mug.”

“How cool is that?”

“You girls hungry?” I asked.

“Yeah, I’m starved,” Rachel said.

“Good. Let’s take the subway one stop.”

We came up at Macy’s. “Oh, I’ve been here!” Rachel said, looking up.

“Oh, many times,” I agreed. “But you’ve never been to the place we’re going. It’s Little Korea.”

“What, like Chinatown?” Stevie asked.

“Sorta,” I said.

“Cool,” she smiled. Midway down Thirty-second Street, we climbed the stairs to Kam Tang Kalbi House. (My dear gourmet Viviane had recommended the best barbeque of the street.) The tables were filled with Korean businessmen. We were seated near the kitchen in the back.

Yeoboseyo,” the hostess smiled, distributing menus. “Welcome. You want soda, or tea? Water?”

Rachel and Stevie looked at one another. “We’ll take water,” Rachel said.

“All around,” I agreed. “And tea is nice.”

The hostess looked at me for a moment. “Okay, three water.”

I nodded. “Yes, and tea. Thanks. Kamsahamnida.” She smiled, bowed and left.

Rachel looked at the menu. “Please tell me you are going to order, Dad.”

“Sure. How about some chicken, some beef and some pork?”

“Okay, that’s fine,” Stevie said, opening the envelope on her napkin. “Hey, are we eating with chopsticks?”

“Looks like,” Rachel said.

“Awesome. What do you do, just break them apart? I’ve never used chopsticks.”

“Here, let me show you,” Rachel offered. The girls practiced as I pondered the menu.

The hostess returned with the water. “You ready order?” she asked.

“Sure,” I said. I pointed to barbecued beef.

“Eh,” the hostess began, looking around. “Um, this . . . no delicious.”

“Oh, not delicious, huh? Well, how about this?” I pointed to barbecued steak.

“Yes,” she wrote in her pad. “Very delicious.”

“Oh, good. And here we’ll have this chicken . . . and this pork and kimchi stew.”

“Good, all delicious.”

“Great!” She collected our menus and left.

“What were you getting that wasn’t delicious, Dad?”

“I’m not sure, but we sure dodged that bullet,” I said.

We were served an array of salads, including kimchi, soy grass, and bean sprouts. “Whoa,” Stevie said, looking over the dishes. “Which one is the chicken?”

“These are more like side dishes for what is to come,” I said, clicking my chopsticks. “Some are spicy, some are cool. Try it with your sticks, and have your water handy. This,” I lifted some kimchi, “I love this shit.”

We dug into the kimchi.

“That’s hot!” Stevie said, chewing as she covered her open mouth. She did a great job with chopsticks. “Like a hot pickle.”

“Nice, right?”

“I love it,” she said, her eyes tearing. Stevie and I were, like, fast friends. Rachel laughed.

The main courses arrived. The chicken was placed in front of Rachel, the steak in front of Stevie. In front of me was a stew simmering over a Sterno.

“Just take what you want and drop it over your rice,” I said. “Douse the rice in soy sauce if you like. We all eat everything.”

“Is this the soy sauce?” Stevie asked. She dipped a finger and licked it. “God, that is good.” She poured a dish into her rice. My new friend is a savory.

The girls dug in. As they ate, they traded quick asides about the men around us. One was cute, Stevie said, adding: “unless he is a panty sniffer.”

“Hey yeah, what was up with that? What happened at the cabins?”

Stevie looked a Rachel. “What, you didn’t tell him?”

“I know the basics,” I said. “But I’d like to hear it all from your point of view.”

Rachel picked up some steak and wrapped it in lettuce. “Okay,” she took a bite. “So my bosses’ nephew David moved in . . .”

“Creepy David,” Stevie amended, taking a lettuce leaf.

“Yeah, so creepy David moved in.”

“How old was he?” I asked.

“Twenty six. So he moved into the cabin next to mine. And so one day, Stevie and I were walking past his cabin, and the door was open. He has cats, so we were like, let’s shut the door before they get out.”

“Yeah,” Stevie chewed. “And then we saw it . . . “

“ . . . in a pile, under the bed . . . “

“ . . . mostly pink.”

“What?” I asked.

“A bunch of my panties!” Rachel said. “Under the bed!”

“Jesus, seriously?”

“Seriously. So we took them back to my place and called Dad”—Rachel’s other father—“who came right over. He told us to put the panties back and called my bosses. So soon they came over, with creepy David. Dad showed them what we found.”

“Good call.”

“They were totally freaked. David was really embarrassed.”

“Creepy David,” I added, instinctively.

“Creepy David, yeah. So they decided to talk about it.”

“Yeah,” Stevie added. “Here’s the thing. I work for them too, so in the mornings at work I heard a lot of this.”

“Yeah, Stevie told me some of this. So anyway, they finally said, look, we have to keep our nephew David around. So you need to keep this a secret.”

“A secret?”

“Yeah, like, if we talked about it in church, or at work, they said they would fire us.”

“What, both of you?”

“Yeah.”

“They said they would fire you both if either one of you talked about this?”

“Yeah.”

“At church, even?”

“Yeah.”

I looked at Stevie. “That is totally fucked up.”

“Seriously,” she agreed, tugging chicken with her chopsticks.

“So anyway, I quit working for them.”

“Well, I can see why.”

“They got David into counseling with our pastor, but it didn’t last long. He moved to Florida a few weeks later.”

“So what, he’s just gone? You had to move, you lost your job, and you had to deal with that threat from your bosses? And he moves to Florida, scot free?”

“Yeah.” Rachel picked up some steak in a lettuce leaf. “Sucks.”

“You must’ve been angry.” She shrugged.

“I wanted to kill him,” Stevie said.

“No doubt,” I said. I looked at Rachel. “Are you okay, baby?”

“Yeah, I mean, it’s over, so whatever. I’ll get a new job.”

“You won’t work for them any more?”

She chewed. “Oh, no way. That was too wrong.”

“It was. You did the right thing. But Jesus, honey.”

“I know. Anyway, you want that last steak?”

“Take it.”

We ate our fill, called for the check and left to get the kids. On the way home, I had a surprise.

“You girls want to do a little celebrity sighting?” I asked as we took the bus across town.

“Sure!” Stevie sat up, looking around. “Who?”

“Howard Stern, right Dad?” Collie asked.

“If you want,” I shrugged.

“You know Howard Stern?” Rachel asked.

“No, I don’t know Howard Stern. But I know where you can see him, if you like.”

“Oh my God, yes!” she replied. The kids giggled. They knew I was grandstanding. We would see Howard Stern whether or not she wanted it. It’s a weekly ritual.

We arrived at the specific corner just a few moments early. Stern’s limo stood waiting. “I’m the look out!” Collie shouted. He ran to the corner and looked down the street.

“Okay!” I called. “Wait here. You want to get out your cameras?” The girls giggled.

“You know who Howard Stern is?” Lillie asked.

“Yeah,” Rachel smiled. “Do you?”

“Sure, we see him every week!” Lillie laughed. “He’s tall. That’s his car. It’s big, right?”

“It is big,” Stevie agreed. “I guess because he is so tall?”

“I guess!” Lillie agreed.

Collie played it cool until the crucial moment. “Okay!” he shouted, running to us. “Here he comes!”

“Thanks Collie,” Jason said, rolling his eyes.

Howard Stern came around the corner. The limo driver opened the door. Rachel and Stevie snapped photographs. The door closed. Howard Stern was driven into traffic as the girls waved and laughed.

“Did he see us?” Stevie asked.

“Oh, he saw you,” I said. “Did you notice how coolly he ignored you?”

“That was so cool,” Rachel said.

Two hours later, I put the girls on a bus back home. Stevie hugged me. “Thanks, Henry! I had such fun.”

“Stevie, honey, anytime you want to sleep in my bed, it’s yours.”

She laughed. “Now I wish I weren’t getting married. I could be Rachel’s stepmom”

“Maybe your marriage will end soon,” I said. “Then we can talk.” I took Rachel’s face in my hands and kissed her. “Bye honey.”

“Bye Dad. Thanks.”

“Thank you darling. I love you too much.”

“I know, same here.”

The bus was still boarding as I headed to the subway.

Life is not what I envisioned it might be when Rachel turned eighteen.

Still, life is pretty good.

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The shower was running, as it had for nearly forty minutes.

From my surrendered bedroom came the sound of a hair dryer. The girls had each packed one, just as they had each packed individual assortments of identical toiletries, just as they had each packed two changes of clothes for each of the three days they were to be in the city. Their oversized suitcases sat side by side under the window in my bedroom.

I took my coffee to my desk, answering email as the girls went through their morning routines.

As they drank their coffee in bed before showering, we had gone over their plans for the day. They had many things they wanted to do in the city, and so little time. I helped them to organize an itinerary, taking into account the proximate location of each destination. They needed a little guidance to realize they could only get to so many things. We had to prioritize.

I also dropped an enticing tidbit. I had set aside the day to be their tour guide. Of course, I was happy to do it, and I truly enjoyed the time with my daughter and her best friend. But, I suggested, if they wanted to do a few things on their own . . .

I laid out a plan that would fill their morning with selected activities, all accessible without public transportation. “We are with your siblings this evening,” I reminded Rachel. “And tomorrow is your last day. I can take you around to do the remaining things tomorrow, of course.”

I could hear them discussing options in the next room as they dressed.

Rachel came out and dropped into a chair near mine. She looked out then window, then down at the floor. “Okay, so, Dad, we think we are cool with being on our own today.”

“Are you sure? I’m happy to join you if you prefer.” I knew they were itching to strike out on their own, but I had to offer.

“No, we’re cool. I mean, it will just be boring for you, girls shopping and all.”

“Well, if you are sure . . .”

“Yeah, it’s cool. We’ll be fine.”

“I know you will. Let me give you a few directions, okay? And call me if you get turned around.”

I gave Rachel a guide books and directions to the “glass mall.” I planned to meet them there after lunch, walk them to Wollman Rink in Central Park, and leave them to skate as I picked up the kids. We’d meet back at my place around four, just before dark.

Rachel took in this plan, clearly happy with this turn of events. She conveyed the plan back to Stevie with calm reserve, as if it was no big deal for her to stroll around New York City on her own.

I watched from the window as the girls walked arm and arm up the street, wearing gloves, hats and scarves on an unseasonably warm morning.

My baby girl! We didn’t make a big deal about it, but this was her first solo venture into the city. Jason is six years her junior and already able to get to and from school, the store and a few friends’ homes. I don’t bite my nails about that anymore; no use, as they were stubs anyway.

But Rachel is the country mouse among my litter. I remember her as a little girl visiting us in the city. She would gleefully push all the buttons in elevators, just to see if the numbers would really light up.

I remember calling her name as she ran to the curb, knowing she had no experience with traffic signals. I remember the way she covered her ears as the subway trains approached the station.

“You so country, sugar,” I would say.

Now here she was, days from turning eighteen and walking a few blocks along the safest streets in the world. Still—my baby girl!

I watched until they were out of view. I sat back with my coffee and worked, killing time until I could meet the girls after lunch.

“You having fun?” I asked when we met. I kissed them each on the cheek.

“We sure are,” Stevie beamed. “I could only afford one thing at that mall, though. Check it out—a CNN coffee mug!”

“That’s pretty cool,” I admired, guiding our way across Columbus Circle. “And so now you are off to skate.”

“I am so going to bust ass,” Stevie fretted, returning her mug to its bag. “I’ve never ice skated.” Rachel laughed.

“Yeah, you’ll bust ass,” I said. “And you’ll get up and bust ass again. Just don’t blow Rachel’s cool. She hates it when I do that.”

“Not a problem, Dad,” Rachel said. “I mean, yes, a problem with you, but, well . . . you know . . .” She let her zinger sink in.

“Are you insinuating that I am uncool, young lady?”

“No, I mean . . . “ She shrugged. “Well, you said it, I didn’t.”

“Well, I never! I’ll have you know I am very ‘with it,’ as the kids say, very ‘hep’ to what you are ‘putting down.’ I can readily ‘get jiggy with it,’ because I know when it is ‘hammer time’ . . .”

Rachel stopped in her tracks. “Are you done yet?”

“No, I can go on and on, just ‘keeping it real,’ you know, just ‘laying down a back beat,’ you know, just ‘hands up’ on our ‘rap session’ . . .”

“We get it, Dad.” Rachel kept a straight face as Stevie laughed.

I shrugged. “All reet. Don’t blow a gasket, gidget.”

“Dad! Enough!”

“Just saying.”

“Fine, fine. You are cool. All right?”

“If you say so, jive turkey.” We bantered our way into the park. We faced down the line at the ice skating rink. Winter trees and the city skyline were etched against a clear blue sky. The girls got their tickets and skates. I took their parcels so they would not worry about them in rented lockers. I kissed cheeks and left them to be best friends. I walked north though the park.

Lillie ran up to me in the schoolyard.

“Daddy, Daddy!” I crouched as if to catch her in my arms. When she was steps from me, I turned and ran away, hell hounds on my trail.

“Dad!” Lillie ran after.

“No, no, make it stop!” I shouted back. I lifted my knees high, running like a Keystone Kop.

“Dad!”

“What?” I stopped and turned, standing stock still, not a care in the world.

Lillie jumped in my arms. “Pick me up, old man!” she laughed.

“I picked you up, stinky girl.”

Lillie looked over my shoulder. “Where’s Rachel?”

“Rachel is meeting us at home. She is ice skating with her friend.”

Lillie pulled back in my arms. “I don’t want to go ice skating.”

“We won’t, it’s just Rachel and her friend. Where’s Collie?”

“I don’t know where he is,” she replied, looking around. I put her down and took her hand.

“Let’s find him,” I said. She led me to her brother. He was playing ball, as he always was after school.

“Hey Collie!” I waved.

“Hey Dad.” He ran over. “Mom said she would be over later for dinner.”

“Oh, is your mom coming for dinner?”

“Yeah, she wants to see Rachel.”

“Okay, great!” I assumed Lucy would want to see her. Rachel had mentioned that Lucy was planning to take her out for dinner. This was the most I had heard about a plan.

Naturally, these days Lucy makes plans with the children without consulting me.

Now I had two conflicting reports. Was Lucy talking Rachel and Stevie to dinner, or was she joining us for dinner at my place? Common courtesy suggests I should be in the loop on this decision. Barring courtesy, I needed to know if I was preparing dinner for four or seven. I contacted Lucy.

“Hey Lucy. Rachel is looking forward to seeing you. So what’s the deal? Are you taking her and her friend out, or are you coming over for dinner?”

“Can I just come over? I’m too tired to do a whole night out with them. I’m sorry.”

“No, it’s fine, no big deal. I have wine. If you want beer, can you bring it?”

“I can bring beer, sure. Is seven good?”

“Seven is fine. See you then.”

“Okay.” Click.

We waited for Jason to join us and then headed to the bus.

The sun was setting as the girls called. They were late, but blocks away. They arrived with the happy news that neither had fallen, not even once. “You didn’t bust ass your first time on ice?” I asked Stevie.

“Nope!”

“Call the Ice Follies, sister, because you have a God-given talent.”

The kids had finished their homework. They were eager to soak up Rachel’s attention. I poured a glass of cabernet and washed basil.

The pesto was ready when Lucy arrived. She said hello and handed me a bag of beer. I took the bag to the kitchen and opened a beer, bringing it to her as she settled in with Rachel and Stevie. “You girls want some wine?” I asked as Lucy took her bottle.

“Sure, that sounds nice,” Stevie began.

“Henry, no, no!” Lucy admonished. “They can’t have wine! They are underage—Henry!”

“Oh, right. Sorry about that girls. Water?”

“No, we’re cool,” Rachel motioned.

I boiled pasta and grated cheese. I prepared a salad. I softened butter for a baquette, which I cut at an angle to present larger slices.

We were too large a group to eat at the table, so we camped around the coffee table in the living room. “I’ve never had this,” Stevie said, twirling another fork full. “I’ve just had pesto in mayonnaise. It’s so good.”

“Thanks,” I smiled.

We spoke softly under the noise surrounding us. The kids were excited to see Rachel, and happy with the novelty of having Mom at Dad’s apartment.

Lucy was trying to draw out Rachel over bites full of food. She was curious about school and life at home, never mind the recent controversy that drove her from her first apartment. Lucy and I were both hungry for the details on that, but this was neither the time nor place.

Lillie slathered butter on bread slice after bread slice, devouring them in hungry bites. For once, the grown ups were too preoccupied to chaperone her infatuation with butter.

Lucy’s conversation with Rachel was punctuated with interruptions. Eventually, she gave in, frustrated that she could not have a private conversation at so public a table. It was, after all, a family reunion.

After dinner, I collected the dishes. Stevie nibbled the remains of the salad with her fingers. “This is the best salad I’ve ever had,” she said, eying the bowl.

“Take another plate, if you want,” I said.

“No, I’m cool,” she said, stuffing another leaf in her mouth. “What is this dressing?”

“It’s store bought—Newman’s Own Olive Oil and Vinegar.”

“Cool,” she chewed, reaching for a tomato. “Newsmansome rocks.”

“Oh, it’s ‘Newman’s Own,’ you know, like Paul Newman.”

“Whatever, he rocks.”

I left the salad bowl to Stevie and stacked the dishes in the kitchen.

After dinner, the kids treated everyone to the floor show. Jason pulled “Lazy Sunday,” which his mother hadn’t seen. He rapped along, laughing. I was in the kitchen, so I skipped playing Chris Parnell to my shaggy son’s Andy Samberg.

Collie followed up with his presentation of the Hustle. I was surprised Lucy had not seen this. For two years, our middle child has done a spot-on choreography of the Hustle. He performs this in sunglasses and a velour purple paisley jacket I bought as a joke to wear on New Year’s Eve, nineteen-eighty-nevermind.

Jason was the DJ to his brother’s disco fever. Lillie laughed and danced along, flubbing every clap and kick.

This played through twice before Lucy was ready to call it a night. It was late, already nine thirty on a school night. “Okay kids, I need to go. Come say good night.” Lucy made the rounds. Rachel was kissed and wished good luck. Stevie was told it was nice to meet her. The kids were kissed in turn.

Collie cried as his mom waved from the door.

The kids looked at me as the door closed. Mom was gone.

“Dad, can I check the score?” Jason knows his mom doesn’t allow media on a school night at her home. But it was playoffs and this was Dad’s home.

“Yes, fifteen minutes.”

“And can we . . . ?” Stevie asked.

“Bottle’s in the kitchen.”

“Will you carry me?” Lillie asked.

“Absolutely not,” I said, picking her up.

Half an hour later, the kids were in bed. I had bourbon in hand, watching Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind with the girls. Stevie had brought her favorite movie. The three of us were in pajamas.

“So, is that about typical with Lucy?” Rachel asked.

“No. Actually, that was very nice,” I said.

Rachel watched Jim Carrey erase Kate Winslett from his memory.

“Weird.”

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Tourists

I was working at my desk, and already on my second cup of coffee, when I heard giggling from my bedroom.

The girls were up. It was a little after ten. I had assumed they would sleep longer after our late night together. I saved my work and went to the kitchen. I opened a cabinet and pulled down two cups.

The girls take their coffee as I do, strong, with sugar and half and half. I stirred, humming as a stream of sugar vanished into a whirl. I tapped the spoon twice on the lip of each cup. I carefully lifted the cups and made my way to the bedroom. I rapped on the door with my foot. “Are you decent?” I called.

“No, never.” More giggles. “But come on in.”

I nudged the door with my shoulder. “I thought you might want some coffee.”

“Oh!” Stevie said, tossing her hair as she sat up. “I could get used to room service.”

“Only the finest,” I smiled, placing the cup on her nightstand.

Stevie was a tourist, on her first visit to New York. Her naive awe of the city made her seem younger than her twenty years.

I made my way to the other side of the bed, the side where I sleep.

“Good morning,” I smiled to Stevie’s best friend. I put the coffee on the nightstand and leaned forward to kiss her. Stevie’s friend was a blond beauty, also a tourist, just a few days shy of her eighteenth birthday. Her braces showed as she smiled. I caressed the hair from her face. “Did you sleep well, love?” I asked.

“Yeah, fine,” she said sitting up. “Thanks for the coffee, Dad.”

My daughter Rachel was in town. Rachel brought along Stevie—and yes, she was named for Stevie Nicks—to introduce her best friend to her “other” family and the city she has come to know over so many visits throughout her childhood

I surrendered my bedroom to the girls, and bunked on the couch.

This was the first time she brought a friend to the city, and I was keen to make it special. It could only bode well for the frequency of future visits if Rachel regarded my place as an urban pied-a-terre for herself and her pals.

Rachel lives in a small town, a place where friendships can be a tad incestuous. Rachel’s best friend Stevie has a younger brother who is Rachel’s new boyfriend. Rachel’s new boyfriend is the best friend of two of her younger brothers.

Rachel tells me it can get a complicated. Sometimes her boyfriend comes over to skateboard with her brothers, and she feels left out. Sometimes her brothers feel neglected when he comes over to listen to music in her room, the door left ajar to allow her mother’s frequent peeks, “just checking in.”

“It’s not like we’re doing anything anyway,” Rachel says. “I mean, he’s only fifteen.”

Their visit was to last only a few days, but the girls had arrived with a hefty agenda. Stevie wanted to see Times Square and the tree at Rockefeller Center, and to go ice skating in Central Park, “if,” she added, “we won’t get mugged there.” Rachel wanted to go shopping at St Mark’s Place, and to visit the “glass mall” we toured on her most recent trip. (It took me a while to ascertain that the phrase “glass mall” referred to the new Time Warner Center.) Somewhere along the way, they would also need to spend time with my kids and my ex.

Their first night was the only one we would have on our own as a trio. I had a few items to add to their agenda. Stevie beamed as we took the subway to Christopher Street. She whispered to Rachel, “Everyone is New York is so fine.”

“I know,” Rachel replied, knowingly. “They walk a lot and wear black.”

“That’s cool,” Stevie said, holding her bag close to her raspberry coat.

As we walked through Washington Square Park, Stevie noticed a sign for New York University. “Oh, too bad the Olsen twins dropped out, we might see them.”

“Yeah, keep your eyes open for celebrities anyway,” Rachel said. “They all live down here.”

“Actually, my boyfriend Peter Sarsgaard lives nearby,” I said.

“He’s my boyfriend, not yours,” Rachel corrected. “Can we stop by and see him?”

“I though you had Jake Gyllenhaal?” I asked.

“Him too, he’s mine too. Hey, can we see Brokeback Mountain up here? I really don’t think it’s going to come to the Podunk Palace Multiplex back home.”

“If we have time, I’m game,” I said.

Rachel looked at me, smiling. “What did you say?”

“Game. I said ‘I’m gay-MUH.’ Listen for the final consonant.”

Stevie listened to our banter. “Wait, who is Peter . . . ”

“Oh cool, look,” Rachel interrupted. “A tattoo store. Can we go in?”

“Yeah,” I said. “Let’s browse the flash.”

“Wait,” Stevie asked, “What’s flash?”

“Stevie’s got two tattoos, you know,” Rachel said, raising an eyebrow to me.

“Really? Let’s see,” I asked. “Here, under this street lamp.” I will always take that bait. Stevie lifted her jacket and shirt and bent forward to show the ornate sprawl on her lower back, then turned and lowered her waistband to show the flower on her lower torso.

I stooped for a closer look. “Nice work,” I admired, politely.

“Thanks,” she said, lowering her shirt in place. “My fiancé talked me into the second one.”

Twenty, tattooed and betrothed. There are times I miss the South.

We stopped in shops as we walked towards dinner, the girls admiring overpriced hand-painted jeans and cheap mass-produced sunglasses. I fell back, allowing them time together. I was content to be the third wheel.

Though I did my share of steering. “Hey, a friend of mine is doing some editing over at that Starbucks,” I said. “Mind if we say hello?”

“Sure,” Rachel shrugged.

“We’ll make her buy us coffee,” I elbowed her.

“Hmmmm,” Stevie smiled. “Caffe mocha light.”

At the Starbuck’s, I knocked on the glass. Bridget looked up. “Well, hello, Henry,” she smiled, as we entered the door. I kissed her cheek, and introduced the girls.

“Hi Rachel, I’ve heard so much about you,” Bridget said, scooting over to make room for more chairs. “Nice to meet you Stevie. You girls want anything? Some hot chocolate?”

“Well,” Rachel’s eyes scoured the menu. “We were thinking caffe mocha light . . .”

“Sounds good.” Bridget palmed a twenty my way. “You, boy. Go get coffee. We have girl talk.” They were laughing as I returned with three cups. They talked as we drank our coffee. Now I was a fourth wheel.

Bridget was taking to her new privilege as an insider in my family. Rachel was no doubt filing queries about Dad’s friend.

We finished our coffees and took our leave. Bridget had her work to do, and I wanted to get the girls fed reasonably early. We had a full night ahead. As the girls put on their coats, I leaned over to kiss Bridget. “Rachel is adorable, and yes, she looks exactly like you,” Bridget whispered. “And by the way—the girls just saw you kiss me.”

“People kiss in New York,” I smiled. “It’s sophisticated.”

“Just be ready for questions.”

“We’ll see. Take care. Good luck with your work. Thanks for the coffee.”

“Have fun, sweet boy.”

I walked a few steps behind the girls as they admired windows and vendors’ stalls. That was okay, I thought. Short but sweet. Maybe my secret life can be not so secret with Rachel. At least a little bit.

“Henry?”

I turned. It was Thomas.

Thomas: my bisexual twink comedian who loves the trannies.

“What brings you to my neighborhood?” he asked.

“I’m here with my daughter,” I replied, pointing ahead. “And her friend.”

“Really? Huh. Man, I have to meet your daughter.”

“If you behave,” I intoned.

I was kidding, but half serious—for two years he has admired Rachel’s photographs on my refrigerator door. He stands naked in my kitchen and asks, “So how long before she’s legal?” I usually reply that I am not setting up my daughter with anyone I’ve been with, so eyes off, boyfriend.

Perverts are lost without scruples.

“Rachel? Stevie?” I called. “Hang on, I want you to meet my friend Thomas.”
We caught up. He shook their hands and introduced himself. The girls smiled that smile girls smile when meeting someone very cute.

“So what are you guys up to?” Thomas asked.

“Nothing much,” Rachel said. “Just looking at stuff, on our way to get something to eat.”

“Yeah, I was just on my way to grab some dinner too.” Rachel and Stevie looked at me. Thomas looked at me.

I supposed this would be all right. “Thomas, if you don’t have other plans, would you like to join us? We’re going out for Indian.”

“I like Indian,” Thomas said, nodding at the girls. “I know a good place on Avenue A.”

“That’s very likely the place we have in mind,” I said. “Come on.”

As we walked, Rachel described the restaurant to her Stevie, who was a little trepidatious. She had warned me that she didn’t like “weird” food, as all tourists will say, but she was open to all the major food groups, so Rachel and I were determined to broaden her horizons a bit.

I could imagine that Thomas was also willing to broaden her horizons. We climbed the stairs to the restaurant. We had warned Stevie to ignore the shouts of competing maitres d’, encouraging us to choose their doors over the one we selected. We were seated. Stevie marveled at the dense tent of lights overhead. “Cool, right?” Rachel giggled.

“Weird, but very cool,” Stevie agreed.

I described a few dishes, as the girls had decided I would order for them. Thomas made his selection.

He was very quiet. Thomas is funny like that. He’s a performer with a great sense of humor, yet he is also shy with new people. That’s as true at a dinner as it is at a party. He tends to listen and watch, observing people and their interactions. You know he is at ease when he begins dropping well-placed one-liners into the conversation. I knew to take the lead until he warmed up.

After we ordered, I remembered that we had failed to pick up beer for dinner. The
Indian restaurants of Sixth Avenue generally lack liquor licenses, so diners must bring their own beer or wine. “I think I want beer,” I said. “Thomas?”

He said that would be great and started to stand. “No, sit,” I said. “Talk. I’m just walking downstairs I’ll be right back.” I excused myself, nodding to Thomas. He would just have to fend for himself with these chatty tourists.

“So, how do you know Dad?” Rachel asked after I left.

“Oh, we just know each other,” Thomas gulped. “So, how was the trip?” Thomas was listening to the girls talk when I returned.

“Everything all right?” I said, unpacking two Kingfishers.

“Yeah, cool,” Rachel said.

I poured the beers. The girls excused themselves to the restroom. Thomas took a sip. “Man, you didn’t tell me Stevie was engaged. How am I supposed to score here?”

“You aren’t supposed to score. You are just here to pretty up the joint. Be nice and make nice talk.”

“Your daughter looks just as Aryan Nation as you.”

“Yeah, if I were young and pretty, I’d be her.”

“Too bad she’s not a slut like you.”

“You want to take this outside? Behave.” The girls joined us. We had ordered a round of appetizers, including the sweet crunchy banana pakoras Rachel likes. Thomas relaxed and kept the girls laughing. When dinner arrived, we passed around silver trays heaped with rice, chana saag, chicken tikka masala, and lamb vindaloo. We tore at the poori and nan, dipping it in daal.

The lights were dimmed in favor of flashing sirens and disco birthday music as the waiters brought Rachel her birthday mango ice cream. “This place is pretty awesome,” Stevie shouted over the music, clapping along.

“Yeah, I love it,” Rachel nodded.

There was a line of hungry diners waiting as we left. The tiny restaurant was so cramped we had to put on our coats outside. The maitre d’ thanked us profusely, as if we had been the only prospective customers that night. “Nice schtick,” I said to Thomas as the girls walked ahead. “They don’t charge much, but you know they do very well.”

“I’m convinced all these restaurants share the same kitchen,” Thomas said, gesturing at the street lined with Indian places.

“This is widely rumored. Like the cole slaw that is ubiquitous in Greek diners. It’s all the same, so it must come from the same source.” We talked until we reached Thomas’s corner.

“Well, this is where I live,” he said.

“Thanks for joining us,” I said. “We are off to be tourists.”

“Have fun.” He nodded to the girls. “Very nice to meet you. Have fun while you are here.”

“Thanks, you too,” Stevie smiled, flirtation dripping from her drawl.

“Nice to meet you too,” Rachel said. She reached to shake his hand. Stevie followed suit.

“Cool.” Thomas took their hands in turn. “Okay, have fun.”

“You too,” I said. He turned and crossed the street. Stevie watched his back.

“What’s up with that?” she said. “I thought for sure we’d get sex off him.”

“I know, what’s up?” Rachel drawled. “He’s just too cute.”

“You want me to set it up?” I teased. I turned toward the corner and raised a finger. “Oh, Thomas . . .”

“Dad!” Rachel punched me. “We are kidding!

“Oh, whew,” I said. “Good thing you stopped me.”

“Were you really . . . ?” Stevie began.

“Don’t encourage him,” Rachel laughed.

“Come on now, no more cute boys,” I said. “We’re off to Times Square.”

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“Oh, yesssss. Yes, Henn-rrrryyy! Bite me! Ooh-wn me-ee-ee!”

Bridget was at full volume as I chewed my way across her ribs.

She’s an alto. Her voice, at full volume, could peel the paint off the ceiling of the Metropolitan Opera.

I long ago found a tender area—just under her breasts, just above her belly—and I was working it, intent on giving her a deep, memorable bite for each orgasm she had given up so far. Trouble was, I kind of lost count. Who can keep track of so much shouting?

So instead, I decided to approximate by chewing one row across in an odd number—I estimated seven—and then a second row back in an even number—estimating six—all in a nice symmetrical pattern.

But that symmetry would be lost if she kept shouting as I bit her. I would have to add more bites, which might in turn add more orgasms. A never-ending spiral.

Not that it was such a big deal. I just happen to like symmetry. It was my own fault for losing count, really, as I was a little distracted. In the back of my mind, I was fantasizing about something new I wanted to try with Bridget.

As my teeth sank slowly deeper into her flesh, as her screams and shouts filled my ears, I allowed my mind to wander to my new fantasy. I lifted my mouth on lucky number thirteen, and surveyed my traces. Bridget panted. I smiled. These would be nice souvenirs.

“Please,” she panted, desperate. “More . . .”

“Yes, of course.” I gave up on biting and symmetry, moving on to other activities until my ears could take no more blistering. We fell apart, panting, She was soon asleep, snoring and sprawled on my bed. I lay awake, pondering my fantasy.

The next time she asked me out, I sprang it on her. “You want to get some dinner, and boink?” she asked. “Boink, boink, boink!”

“Dinner sounds good,” I replied, gulping. “But can we forgo the boinking? I want . . .”

“What?”

“May I bring the kids?”

I’m sure she hit the floor. Bridget knows I have a very firm rule. I keep my life as a parent far removed from my dating life. I do not want my kids to meet my lovers. I do not want them confused about who is and who isn’t “Dad’s girlfriend” and, in their minds, potentially a new Mom.

So far as the kids are concerned, Dad is just . . . Dad. Dad presumably goes back into a box when they are gone, waiting to reactivate upon their return. But Bridget has me thinking.

She asks me about the kids pretty much every day. She remembers details about them that even I can’t recall. She tells me about her godchild’s every landmark. Through her updates, I have come to feel that I know this child I’ve never met. She respects my rule, and she cares about my children.

I’ve also been pondering the future of my life after divorce.

I’m not at all interested in finding the Next Big Thing in a relationship. I don’t want a wife, or a new mother for my children, or anything like that. I’m a great parent, I tell myself. I can do this without muddying the waters with another adult in the mix.

Even so, it is hard work. I am grateful for every bit of help I get from friends, wishing my family lived closer. I regret that the kids have to grow up that much faster to compensate for the absent parent.

I’m smart enough to know that this is a unique time in my life, and in the lives of my children. And that makes me wonder: who, among the people I have met since my marriage ended, would I want in my life ten years from now? Who among those people would I want to integrate into my life with the children? Once I thought it over, I decided that Bridget made the cut.

I have no idea what our relationship will be in ten years. I have no way of knowing. But I do think we’ll remain constants, in some way or other.

It helps that we have a fake past.

We realized early on that during our college years, by chance, we had danced in the same club in the same town. We might have met back then. We might have been friends ever since.

We decided to adopt that false history as our cover story. If anyone asks, we met all those years ago. We’ve been friends forever. It’s a better fit than the real story: we actually picked up one another on Craig’s List. We met at a bar that same day. We went Dutch. She came over to get laid. I gave her two hours and then kicked her out. Who knew it would stick?

My fantasy took root one afternoon when she stopped by to drop off some things from a Costco shopping spree. “Just a few things,” she said, “to get you through the weekend with the kids.”

That afternoon, the kids were zoned out to Cartoon Network. Bridget called from the lobby. “Hey guys, I’m going downstairs to get a package,” I said.

“I’m coming!” Collie replied, jumping up.

“Me too!” Lillie said.

“No, please,” I stammered. “It’s just a few things . . .”

“I’ll get my shoes,” Collie replied.

“Me too,” Lillie said.

“Okay, fine,” I said, resigned to the inevitable. “A friend of mine is dropping off some stuff.”

“What friend?” Lillie asked, pulling on her socks. “You have a lot of friends, Dad. You need to use a name.”

“It’s Bridget,” I said, gathering her shoes. “She has some groceries and stuff.”

“Is she a weenie?” Lillie asked. “Weenie” is her term for anyone who might be considered Dad’s girlfriend.

“Be nice. Don’t say ‘weenie.’”

“Okay,” she giggled as I tied her shoes.

“Lillie . . .”

“I won’t!”

“Good.”

Bridget was surprised to see me as I arrived with a cart and two children. “Well, hello! Let me guess, you are Collie, and you are Lillie?”

Collie grinned. “Yes.”

“Yes,” Lillie echoed, “And you are a weenie!”

“Yes, I am a weenie,” Bridget smiled. “And you are a poopy head.”

“No!” Lillie laughed. “You are a weenie and a poopy head!”

“No, I’m a weenie and you are a poopy head. I’m Buttercup, and you are Blossom. See, I have black hair, and you have red hair. Weenie and poopy head, Buttercup and Blossom.”

Lillie was struck silent. Lillie! Silent!

“Here, help me unpack,” Bridget said to Collie. “Take this.” She handed over a tub of Cheese Balls. It was nearly the boy’s size.

“Whoa, this is huge!” he exclaimed. “Look, I’m holding it over my head!”

“Well, it weighs about two pounds, dear. It’s all air.”

“It’s huge!” He looked at the tub of Cheese Balls as though it were his first Emmy.

“It is huge, but if you don’t put it down, you can’t help me with the Fruit Loops.”

Lillie looked at Collie. “Fruit Loops?” they shouted.

“Hope their mom doesn’t mind,” she said to me, pulling out an enormous box.

“Ooh, she’ll hate that,” I smiled.

“Gee, you think?”

Lillie held the box aloft. “Wow!” she managed.

The kids helped me to bring up a cart full of stuff, but there was more to come. Bridget waited downstairs.

“Jason! Jason!” Collie shouted. “Look at these Cheese Balls!”

“And the Fruit Loops!” Lillie followed.

“Whoa, where did this come from?” Jason asked.

“Dad’s friend!” Lillie said.

“Bridget!” Collie added. “You want to meet her?”

“Uh, sure, where is she?”

“Downstairs!” Collie called, running to the door. “Get your shoes!”

“Oh, okay,” Jason replied. “Wait up!”

Collie helped me to push the cart we had just emptied. Jason stuffed his hands in his pockets as he approached Bridget’s car.

“Oh hi, you must be Jason.”

“Yeah . . .”

“I’m Bridget. How are you?”

“Fine.”

“Were you playing Madden?”

He smiled. “Yes . . .”

“Are you playing the team or the owner?” she asked, handing him a carton of Ramen noodles.

“Team.” Jason looked at me. How did she know this stuff?

“That’s a good game. You know ‘X-Men Legends?”

“No . . .”

“It’s awesome. You saw the movie?”

“No . . .”

Bridget punched me. “What kind of father are you?” Lillie laughed.

“I just . . . hey, I try,” I protested. I looked at Jason. “You see, the X-Men are a group of mutants who try to be good, though everyone thinks they are bad . . .”

Jason shook his head. “Dad, come on.”

“Don’t worry,” Bridget said to Jason. “You’ll see it.”

Jason shrugged. “Cool.”

I realized something that day. Raising kids can take a village. When I find good villagers, I need to let them help. Three children are a lot for one man. And so it was that Bridget crossed over my boundary, at my bidding.

Bridget came into my innermost circle. The kids.

I kept a close eye on things.

We took the kids to see Corpse Bride; for dinner, she suggested the kids compare Subway to Blimpies. Lillie preferred Subway, Jason preferred Blimpies, and Collie pretended that Corpse Bride was too babyish.

We took the kids bowling. We all scored high. It helped that we used bumpers on the lane.

We had a birthday dinner at a local sushi restaurant. Bridget’s birthday is the day before Jason’s. We combined the party and kept the waiter busy.

For her birthday, I gave Bridget a photograph of myself in college. “Here’s the evidence,” I said. “We’ve known each other a long time.”

At Christmas, I allowed gifts from Bridget under Bucky’s tree. Lillie opened a bag full of Hello Kitties from Bridget. “Wow,” she laughed, opening the fifth wrapped Kitty, with many more to go. “Bridget must really love me!”

“Who’s Bridget?” Richard asked me.

“A friend of ours,” I said. “Mine and the kids.” My ex wife noted that Bridget gave nice presents.

The other night, Bridget came over for dinner. Afterward, we played Clue with the kids. Game after game. Lillie stuck to Miss Scarlet, as always. Jason was indelibly Colonel Mustard. Collie switched Professor Plum for Mister Green, then switched to Mrs White. He tried every trick to work the angles.

Bridget watched the children’s faces and made careful notes in her detective’s handbook. She knew the murderer first, but held her deductions close to avoid guessing the children’s secrets.

After the kids were in bed, I discovered a split of champagne in the refrigerator. “You brought this?” I asked.

“Uh huh.”

“You ready?”

“Uh huh.”

I opened the split and poured two flutes. We clinked glasses.

“Happy anniversary,” I said.

“Happy anniversary,” she smiled.

Two years ago that night, we met for the first time. Legend has it we danced to New Order long before.

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Bernard and I arrived home around four. We unpacked the car. He left to return the rental car. I stayed to organize boxes and suitcases.

I emptied my pockets of condoms, glad they went unused. I made a sandwich.

Bernard returned before five. He made a sandwich. Around six, Bernard settled in to watch the news, warm under a quilt. He fell asleep immediately. He would sleep until morning.

The holiday exhausted him.

I was also feeling the worse for the wear.

Around eight, my phone rang. I put on my coat and scarf. I closed the door quietly behind me. The elevator took me to the lobby. A car was waiting. The passenger in the back seat leaned forward and smiled. I smiled back, opened the door and sat next to her. She kissed me. “It’s over,” she said. “You survived eXmas.”

I took out my flask. The driver took off.

That night, I dreamed I was on a television show that turned out to be a sleeper. Good reviews led to more viewers, and it was a hit in certain circles. It focused on an eccentric family, sort of like “The Royal Tenenbaums.”

I was a minor character. The success of the show did not make me instantly famous, but everyone was thrilled for me and now and then, someone would point me out on the street. This small measure of fame was nice.

The patriarch of our television family, President Josiah Bartlett, was dead set on a project that we considered a folly. He treasured a quote from Plutarch and now wanted to see that quote destroyed. He wanted to watch as that quote was hurled from a speeding train.

I wasn’t sure why he wanted this, or how it would be pulled off. I imagined carved marble letters being smashed on rocks. To realize this vision, our television family traveled by train to a remote mountain location. We were left at a bend in the line, overlooking a sublime view. “Men, you set up camp,” the President ordered. “While the ladies prepare a fire for dinner.”

As we sat around camp, I realized I was bored and not quite sure what was supposed to happen. I also realized that I had had sex with many of the other campers.

I talked with a cute couple. He was freckled with red hair. She was a doe-eyed pixie who sat with her legs curled under her. He said she was his sub. She nodded in agreement. “I’m really aggressive and passionate,” he said. She nodded. He began to initiate something with her, but as they kissed, he said something that didn’t sit well with her. The moment was lost.

Later, he tried again. He knocked over a beer, and in cleaning up the mess, he was distracted into something else. “You say you are a good dom,” I said. “But you get distracted and don’t follow through. Do you have trouble focusing?”

“Sometimes, yeah.”

“Here. Kiss me,” I said.

“Okay.” He moved closer.

We kissed as his girlfriend watched. We kissed tentatively at first, then with increasing ardor. But I had to keep him focused. He was not a great kisser and he seemed to get lost now and then. He pulled back. “Ow, you kiss too much,” he said.

“Too much?” I asked.

“Yeah, I don’t really kiss that much.” The girlfriend nodded.

We heard the train arriving. “This is it,” the President shouted. “Everyone come to the tracks!”

We raced over. The train rounded the bend. A conductor leaned from the window as it passed, tossing something from a window. The President ran to collect it. “That’s it!” he cried. He gathered up a small bundle.

We drew close to see that he held a paper plate, tied to a rock. It was nestled in his arms like a newborn. The quote from Plutarch was written on the plate. “Kind of anticlimactic,” someone whispered to me. It was my ex brother in law, Richard.

“Not too impressive,” I agreed.

“Okay everyone, break camp,” the President called. “We take the next train out.”

We packed up our tents and waited for the train. We were taken to a nearby station in an Old West town. We were put onto a tram. It raced us through the town and into a saloon, winding past bar, tables and patrons, like “The Wild Ride of Mister Toad” meets the Gem Saloon of “Deadwood.”

“Looks like the set designers had fun,” Richard said.

“I’ll say!” I replied. We disembarked at the end of the tram ride. I lead the group. I nearly stepped on Annie Sprinkle, who reclined on the floor. She was dressed in a gypsy blouse, long skirt and full petticoats. She spread her legs as I passed, exposing herself. “That’s one off the tab,” she called to the bartender. The bartender guffawed. She flashed Richard. “That’s two!” The bartender laughed as she flashed us each in turn.

We left the saloon, and I became confused. Why was President Josiah Bartlett on our show? Or maybe I was on “The West Wing?” But if so, what was my relationship to the President? Who was my character?

I thought to ask Richard, but he wasn’t around.

Monica Lewinsky ran up to me. “Baby, I missed you!”

“I missed you too, Molly.” In the dream, her name was Molly. We kissed and she hopped on my back. “Where are you taking me?” she asked.

“Nowhere. Molly, look, you know I’m not interested in marrying you.”

“Silly boy,” she said, nibbling my ear. “You know I’m the one.”

I woke up.

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I awoke before the children, roused by murmurs in the sun room. It was a little before eight. The day after Christmas.

Bernard and Bucky were talking in low voices—or at least, as low as Bucky’s voice gets—as they had coffee and traded sections of the Times.

It was a quiet adult moment between them. They had no doubt been up since sunrise.

I lay in bed, listening as I had as a child, when my parents took us camping. My brothers and I were tucked in as the grown-ups stayed up to talk around the campfire. I would be frustrated that as the eldest, I had the same bedtime as the babies. I quietly played with toys, making them talk about whatever it was that made the grown-ups laugh.

On this morning after Christmas, I had to pee. I knew that once I left my bed, I would be summoned to the sun room to join the grown ups. I did not want to disturb them, but my bladder got the better of my discretion.

“Is that you, Henry?” Bucky called as I flushed.

“Yes, it’s me,” I said, washing my hands.

“We have the paper,” Bernard responded. “Coffee is on the stove.”

“Thanks. Y’all sleep well?” The jig was up. I was awake for good. I poured my coffee and made my way to an empty chair between them. They talked to me about the day’s news even as I first read the headlines.

The kids came downstairs as a group. They slept in the same room, so they woke as one.

We put out breakfast.

The uncles and aunt arrived. We made more coffee. We toasted more bagels and put out more lox. It was around ten as everyone settled into the morning.

Lucy remained in her room. She was sleeping in. Except I knew: she was not asleep. The children knew this. We all knew this.

Lucy hasn’t slept later than seven thirty in all the years I’ve known her. Lately, she complains of even less sleep. She awakes before dawn and can’t relax.

During our relationship, if she woke too early, she would wake me and talk. She needed someone to listen. My drowsy responses of “uh huh” and “hmmm” lulled her away from loneliness.

I complained that I was not a morning person. She woke me anyway. I offered my sleepy lullaby.

Lucy knew there were plenty of adults to watch after the kids, including their father. She was not required to make an appearance. She could hide in her room, avoiding us all.

Around ten thirty, she was in the kitchen, fully dressed. She had put her bag by the door, fully packed. “Henry, some of the gifts you gave the children are piled in the center of their room. You will need to pack them for your apartment.”

“Good morning,” I said. “You want some coffee?”

“I’ll make my own, thank you.”

“The kids are fed.”

“I’m aware of that.”

“Okay.” I took my third cup of coffee to read the Metro section.

Lucy had her coffee as she packed gifts.

“Mom, are we leaving soon?” Collie asked.

“Yes, very soon.”

“Good. This place is creepy.”

“We’ll be home soon,” she said.

“Mom, I packed my Hello Kitties,” Lillie said. She held a Hello Kitty shoebox filled with stuffed animals. She looked down and began to list their new names. “Here is Fashion Kitty, Mommy Kitty, Birthday Kitty, Cheetah Kitty and her twin Tiger Kitty . . .”

“Lillie, those all go to your dad’s apartment. He got them for you.”

“He didn’t give me all of them. Some came from Santa, and some . . .”

“Please put that box by the door for your dad to pack.”

“But Mom . . .”

“Lillie, I need you to do that, and then help me pack your other gifts.”

“Okay . . .” Lillie put the box of toys on the floor and followed her mother.

I put down the paper, and swallowed the last of my coffee. “I’d better help here,” I said to Richard.

“You’re excused,” he said, eyes on the Op-Ed pages.

Lucy soon had the children dressed and ready to go. “Lillie,” she said. “Go put on your new purple sneakers so we can leave.”

“I want to wear the Hello Kitty sneakers Dad got for me.” Mother and father each knew their daughter needed sneakers. But since mother and father aren’t speaking, each didn’t know that the other had taken care of the need.

“Lillie, please put on the purple sneakers.”

“Dad, can I wear the Hello Kitty shoes?”

I wasn’t getting between them. “You need to do as your mother says. The purple sneakers are cool.” Lucy packed another gift. “Fine, wear the shoes you want.” She mouthed me the words: I want to go.

Lillie was pleased. She won a battle. I laced the shoes on her feet, en route to her mother’s house. Lillie won the battle, but lost the war. I’d probably never see those shoes again.

Lucy packed the car. The children were dressed. The children were packed into the car. The rest of us gathered on the front porch. Lucy drove off as we waved.

She had to come back when her sister called to say she had forgotten Collie’s coat and gloves. Lucy’s sister called again later, when we found she had forgotten Jason’s trumpet and a bag of gifts. She was well on her way. We made other arrangements.

She burned rubber to get the holiday fast into her rearview mirror.

“Well, it sure is quiet now,” Bucky commented, as I packed the rest of the children’s gifts.

“We will have you back to normal in no time,” I said.

Lucy may have forgotten a few details, but she was focused on one thing. Each of the gifts associated with me was assiduously edited from those she took home. It didn’t matter what the children wanted to play with in the moment. If it came from her family, it was packed. If it came from me, it was abandoned.

I put Lillie’s box of carefully packed Hello Kitties into a bag.

Bernard and I loaded his rental car. We were driving back alone. About an hour after Lucy hauled ass, we said our goodbyes.

Bernard was especially tender with Bucky. I followed suite.

When we were well underway, talking about the weather and the road, I scratched the scab. “We were lucky this year,” I said, adjusting the rental car’s satellite radio. “We missed the traditional Christmas day fight between Lucy and Bucky.”

“Well, that was predicted,” Bernard said as he drove. “So it could be avoided.”

“What do you mean? They do it every year, like clockwork.”

“Yes. So I told them that when they think they are going to fight, they should each leave the room.”

“Very wise. I noticed Lucy left the room on me a lot, too.”

“Yes, she did. But last night she didn’t, and you two got into it.” Bernard was in the next room as Lucy and I had our fireside chat on Christmas. He could hear every word.

“Were we so loud? I really tried not to argue . . .”

“It’s not you, Henry. It’s not even her. You two are going to disagree for a while.”

That’s pathetic, I thought, watching the cars. “I think she is crazy when it comes to me in ways I don’t understand.”

Bernard kept his eyes on the road. “I don’t recall her mother ever being so distasteful when we broke up. Maybe that is true, and maybe it’s my selective memory.”

I groaned. “I want a selective memory too.”

Bernard chuckled. “It’s a blessing and a curse. But the thing is, you have to remember, she is really trying and she is in a lot of pain.”

“I know that, Bernard. You know, she wanted this divorce . . .”

“I know.”

“And I fought it . . .”

“I know.”

“And she got what she wanted.”

“I know. But all that doesn’t matter. She’s really unhappy.”

“She’s miserable.”

“Yes, she’s miserable. And she only has you to blame.”

I watched the vineyards pass. “I get that. It makes no sense, but I get it.”

“It doesn’t have to make sense. It’s the way it is.”

I had set the radio to classic rock of the Sixties. Eric Burden sang. “I’d much rather it made sense.”

“It would be better. But this is how it is. The good news is, you don’t have to deal with her again for a year.”

“What do you mean? I deal with her almost every day.”

“I mean, you don’t have to be in the same house, under the same roof, until next Christmas.”

We passed a tree farm. “I don’t think that is such a good thing, Bernard. If she dealt with me, we would come to some understanding. So long as she refuses to talk to me, she can go right ahead creating some monster version of me, separate from reality.”

“Yes, but . . .”

“So long as we aren’t talking, her anxieties are her guiding influence. I’m not the living, breathing father of her children. I join her mother as one of history’s great war criminals.” Bernard laughed sardonically. “You know, I have offered to go into therapy with her, if it helps. This is just unwarranted bullshit for the kids.”

“Look, we survived this Christmas,” Bernard said. “See how it goes next year.”

We passed a Veterans of Foreign Wars post. There was a tank parked outside, resting on a concrete platform. Holes had rusted into the bottom of the tank.

“Hey, Simon and Garfunkel,” Bernard said. “Haven’t heard that song in a while.”

“Me neither,” I said, turning up the volume.

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