“Dad! Hey, Dad!” Lillie broke from her class line and ran to me. She pulled a backpack from her shoulders as she dodged kids and parents standing between us.
“Hey sweetheart,” I smiled, bending on one knee to hug her. “You are so excited!”
“I have a birthday card for you, Dada,” Lillie said, a babyish tone slipping into her voice. She unzipped her backpack and fished inside. “Here you go!”
I looked at the paper she handed to me. On the outside fold she had written, “Happy Birthday Dad.” Inside there was a drawing of the two of us—Lillie with bright red hair, me with yellow hair, no necks on either figure—dancing on green grass under an orange sun. A gray kitten watched next to a flower.
“That’s very sweet, honey. Thank you so much.”
“Look at the back,” she giggled. On the back fold she had written, in brown, “You are stinky just like poop.”
I lowered my arms in mock exasperation. “Why, Lillie? Why must you be such a rotten child?”
She giggled. “You’re old.”
“And you are an ill-mannered cur.”
“Hey Dad,” Collie said from behind me.
“Hey, handsome boy.” I hugged him. “How was school?”
“It was fine. Here,” he shoved a note in my hand. “I made you a birthday card.” He suppressed a grin, trying to play it cool.
“Oh, how sweet is that? Let me see.” On the cover fold, he had drawn a heart, surrounded by other hearts, and written, “Happy Birthday Dad.” I opened the card to find a drawing of stars and planets, with a colorful pyramid topped by the words, “I love you.”
“Now, isn’t that the sweetest thing?” I gushed. I took his cheeks in my empty hand and cooed. “My adorable, tender boy, so sweet to his dear loving daddy . . .”
“Uh, Dad,” Collie grimaced through puckered lips. “Not in the schoolyard, dude.”
“Oh, right.” I dropped my hand. “Gots to be cool, hep cat.”
“Whatever!” he giggled. We gathered our belongings to head to the bus.
On the day after my birthday, after five days apart, I was back with my kids, providing a hiatus and respite from sex with my friends and lovers. Just in time, too: I needed a break. It would be nice to rest up with my progeny.
Jason was meeting us at home later. He had an appointment with his mother, who was taking him for a haircut after school.
Haircuts are a sensitive matter for Jason. At twelve, he is newly attuned to his appearance. For the past two years, he had emulated his cousin, my cool eighteen-year-old nephew, by growing his hair long.
Jason’s straight chestnut hair split at his forehead to cascade to his shoulders, framing his angelic face and deep chocolate eyes. He looked adorably spacey, which rather suited his dreamy, slightly out-to-lunch personality.
Every now and then, his mother takes him for a haircut to trim the edges. Jason endures this glumly, always watching the mirror as his hair is cut, complaining that he didn’t want it to be trimmed too short as his mother directed the barber to take off just a little more here, a little more there.
My ex Lucy insists on supervising the children’s haircuts. She feels I would indulge their preferences too much. Lucy remembers when my hair grew past my shoulders. She thought my long hair was sexy back then, but that history discredits my judgment concerning the children now. She would much rather be in control of the children’s appearance.
I was reading on the couch when the front door opened. I looked up to see a boy’s head pop in the doorframe, grinning. It was Collie. No, wait: it was Jason. With a very short haircut.
“Jason! Oh my gosh, I didn’t recognize you!” I closed my book. “Come here, let me look at you.”
Jason walked in and closed the door. His grin stretched from one newly exposed ear to the other.
“Do you like it?” he asked.
“You look . . . very handsome,” I said, stunned. “But it’s so different!”
“I know. Mom thought I should try it short for a while.”
“She did, huh? Well, what do you think about it?”
“I don’t know, it’s okay, I guess. Do you think it looks, you know, babyish?”
I looked him over. “No, not at all. It actually makes you look older, really. Like, longer. Taller.”
He nodded, still grinning. It was true. He looked very grown and handsome. It was a fine haircut.
I swallowed my resentment. My ex thinks nothing of radically altering my son’s appearance without my input. Here was evidence that my opinion doesn’t matter in the least to her. I can imagine her reaction if the situation were reversed. Of course, the situation would never be reversed. I know better than to question her presumed authority over most things.
Jason stooped over his backpack. “So Dad, did Collie and Lillie give you their birthday cards?”
“Yes, they sure did. Those were sweet. Did you see them?”
“Uh huh, they made them last night. I have something for you too.”
“You do? How sweet, honey.”
“Yeah, where is it . . . okay, here it is.” He pulled a yellow bag from his pack and hid it under an arm. He stood and walked to me. “Okay, are you ready?”
“I’m ready, baby.” I smiled.
“Okay, so here it is.” He swirled an arm to present me with small bag from Tower Records.
“You got me a CD?” I asked, taking the bag.
“Yeah. After my haircut, we went to Tower ‘cause I wanted to get something for you. I used my own money, too. It took a long time, because I wanted to get something I knew you would like, but that we would like too, so we could all listen to it.”
“That’s very smart,” I said. “That way, we can share it.”
“Exactly,” he said.
I took the CD in my hand. “Oh wow, it’s the White Stripes. I do like them.”
“Yeah, I know. It has that ‘doorbell’ song. I know you like that because you always play it.” He paused. “Wait, you don’t already have that CD, do you?”
I wasn’t quite sure how to respond. He was so sweet to think of the White Stripes for me, but . . . “Um, well actually, hon, yes, I do have it. That’s why I keep playing it.”
“Oh, that’s cool, I thought you might. That’s why I saved the receipt—you can take it back and get something else.”
“Oh, good thinking, kid. So did you have second choice?”
“Um, yeah. Mom said I should get you the new Death Cab for Cutie, but I didn’t know if you had it.”
“You know what? I don’t have it. So that is just what I’ll do. I’ll take this back and get the new Death Cab for Cutie. That’s a great gift. Thanks!”
I stood and kissed him.
“Well, you know,” he said.
“I know baby. I love you. So tell me about school.”
He talked about a friend at school, eventually sitting on the floor as his story grew more elaborate. We talked for a half hour before I had to get started on dinner.
A few days later, I returned the CD and brought back Death Cab for Cutie. It caught Collie’s ear. He began to sing along. “Hey, did you steal this CD from Mom?” he asked.
“No, actually, your brother got it for our collection,” I said.
“Oh. Well, it’s Mom’s favorite too.”
“Do you like it, honey boy?”
He shrugged. “It’s okay.”
That night, we spun the CD again as I prepared dinner and Jason typed his homework. He was asked to write the first chapter of a fictional story based on a true event. For a source, he went back to the central trauma of his young life. Fiction offered a way to revise an unalterable memory, exchanging one set of facts for another.
“Brett, will you come downstairs for a moment?” As I walked down the stairs, I knew what was coming. I was prepared for it. “Ed, Lisa, you two come down too!”
As my brother, Ed, and my sister, Lisa, rushed down the stairs, I looked in their eyes. I saw happiness and joy. They had no idea that the next words that would come out of our parent’s mouths would crush their hearts and drastically change all of our lives forever
It wasn’t as though I hadn’t seen it coming. My mother always tells me that when her parents got divorced, she had no idea it was coming. My parents had been fighting for what seemed like forever, but in reality had only been three months. At first, it was just petty fights. After that . . . it got much worse.
The first time they ever fought, it was about something small and stupid. My father was home fifteen minutes late, and my mom asked why he was late.
“Traffic was a killer,” he replied, and proceeded in to the kitchen to make dinner. But my mom was not going tom let him go that easily. You see, my father has problems with being late sometimes, and my mother had heard on the radio that there was no traffic.
“But sweetie, I heard there was no traffic.”
I’ll be straight with you about my mom. She’s a fundraiser person, so she’s a bit of a nag. She simply does not leave a conversation without getting the information she wants. And also, she does not lose arguments.
“They must have been wrong, honey,” my father said.
“I heard what the radio said. They would have been wrong three times,” my mother said.
“Maybe you misunderstood them.”
“Are you calling me old?!”
“No, I just said . . . “
“If you are going to speak to me like that, I don’t want to talk to you at all!”
I’m still walking down the stairs. You know how they say that when you’re about to die, your life flashes before your eyes? That’s sort of what’s happening to me, only I’m not thinking about my life, I’m thinking about their life. And I’m not dying, I only feel like I am.
My father is a man who works in a corner office, like one you see on TV. He calls himself the above average man with the world’s most average job. He works for Microsoft, which means he works for Bill Gates, which means his salary is rather healthy. It also means he gets pushed around a lot, which is why he never gets mad or raises his voice. He can’t, or he’d be fired in two minutes. At least, I thought that he couldn’t get mad.
My mother, as I said, is a fundraiser lady. She knows what to do, why to do it and how to do it at all times. She’s not a bad fundraiser person, either. She gets calls from companies everyday asking for her services. You might think that she’s away a lot, but she’s really not. She’s with us most of the time. I thought she could handle anything. It turned out she couldn’t handle one thing: a husband.
Those petty fights lasted for about two months. I never really got worried about them. They made up right after their fights. But for the last month, I was worried. Very worried.
Their last fight, which happened a week ago, pretty much summed up their last month of fighting. It went something like this:
“I’m tired of you being late and lying about why you’re late!,” my mother yelled.
“I’m tired of you not listening to what I say! I’m not a liar,” my dad retaliated.
”You’re an irresponsible old man and I never want to see you again!”
“Fine!” my dad shouted, and grabbed some clothes and his toothbrush and was out the door. My mother immediately began crying. My father spent the night at a hotel. My mother begged him the next morning to come home, which he did. But never was there an apology by either of them. Never.
I get down the stairs, and sit down. I look around me. My brother and sister were anxious to know what they were going to say. I was not. I shouldn’t have been. I knew what they were going to say.
“Kids,” my mother said with a shaky tone. “Your father and I have been thinking, and we’ve decided . . . to have a baby. I’m pregnant.”
This was probably the biggest surprise of my life. As my siblings celebrated, I reflected. I guess I was to pessimistic. It takes longer than three months to decide to get divorced. So our family is safe.
We ate supper shortly after he finished. The kids bathed before bedtime. I tucked them in and did the dishes before reading over Jason’s homework.
He hadn’t mentioned the subject all night.
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