Archive for the ‘birth family’ Category

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

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

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

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

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

The computer was dead.

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

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

Someone at the party must have flipped my switches.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My new phone rang not long after it was installed.


“Hank! Your phone works!”

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

“Are you okay?”

“Sure, I’m fine. Why, what’s up?”

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

“What? Lucy? Why, what did she do?”

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

Lucy’s first missive read:

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

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

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

Can you help??

My mother was quick to express her alarm.

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

Lucy replied:

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

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

I hope you aunt gets better.

Mom was somewhat relieved.

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

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

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

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

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

Hi all,

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

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

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


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

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

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

She teared now and then as she spoke.

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

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

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

We wrote off Lucy’s call to drunk dialing.

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

She never rings my phone.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I love that fish,” Jason drooled.

“It has eyes!” Collie recalled.

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

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

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

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

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

“You are already in New York?”

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

“Well, were you going to invite me?”

“Uh, would you care to join us?”

Mom rolled her eyes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I missed you too.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lucy and I ordered beer with dinner.

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

“No, dear, it can’t see you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But I want to go home with Dad too.”

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

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

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

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

“But I want to go with Dad, too.”

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

“Okay,” he sniffled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Noon passed. We read the paper. No word.

I finally called her around two.

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

“Everything is fine.”

“Did they sleep late?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How did I wind up being the difficult one?

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

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

“Wait, are you there?”


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

“Fine.” Click.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ten o’clock?”

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

“I’d much prefer that.”

“Fine. See you tomorrow.”

“Wait, can I talk to the . . .”

She was gone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I love you, Hank,” Mom said.

“I love you Mom. I love you Dad.”

“I love you son. Party on!”

“The party continues!”

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

I waved and watched as the car drove south.

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

I went to Mitzi’s apartment.

We were up all night.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I always said yes.

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

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

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

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

I counted backwards.

I called her.

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

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

Emily was nineteen. I was twenty-two.

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

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

I might never meet my child.

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

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

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

I hugged him, crying.

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

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

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

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

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

First, I’m bisexual.

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

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

She held my hand.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By this time, Rachel was walking.

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

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

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

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

I agreed that my sexual relationship with Emily was over.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Emily was pregnant. She seemed very happy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Emily screamed.

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

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

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

Emily nodded, too stunned to do otherwise.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And they fell in love with their granddaughter.

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

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

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

Whatever. We’re family.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hey Dad,

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

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

I love you Dad. Call me!


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Because I prefer it, she answered.

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

Because I prefer it, she answered.

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

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

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

We set a date.

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

We planned the wedding.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s what we want. Right, Henry?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

She looked so beautiful.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She was scared to death. We both were.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Don’t follow me!” she called back.

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

I had to take care of her.

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

I was bleeding. How do I fix this?

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

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

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

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

“You mean she’s not in your room?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

She hugged me as I stood.

“I have to go, Mom.”

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

“She won’t, Mom. Geez.”

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

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

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

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

How much I loved her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marcus was there, with his new wife.

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

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

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

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

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

Just like that, we were married.

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

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

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

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

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

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

That night, everybody got laid.

Well, almost everybody.

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

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

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

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

I laughed, though the comment made me rather sad.

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

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

We’d return to therapy many times afterward.

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What a tender kiss he has, I thought.

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

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

Whoever it was, he smiled.

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

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

I looked.

“Anything?” he shrugged.

“Nothing. I’m sorry.”

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

His image came into focus for me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What? What time is it?”

“Breakfast time, breakfast time! Wakey wakey!”

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

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

“You’re not up up.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re up early,” I said.

“You’re up early,” he deadpanned.

“Yeah, but you look like death.”

“Yeah, but you look like death.”

“Stop copying me.”

“Stop copying me.”

I sipped my coffee, smacking loudly.

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

He coughed into his juice.

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

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

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

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

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

No alarms, no wake up calls.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Good morning, Mother. Any eggs left?”

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

“Why, thank you, that would be nice.”

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

“Yeah, a lot, right?”

I was reading an email from Luis.

Hey Henry,

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


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

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

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

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

“You working or writing one of your friends?”


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mom knew this girl was black. She was shocked.

“Mom, what are you doing?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hopefully, I am free of that now.

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

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

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

Me and Rosie Palms in my fortress of solitude.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mom nods. “Good. You can do better.”

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

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

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

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

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

“You promise to keep it secret?”

“I do.”

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

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

“Isn’t it? I love a sauna.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No, no, I’m fat! Look at me”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“Dad! Hey Dad, look at this!”

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

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

“I’m casting off! See, watch.”

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

“Nice form, son!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Party on!” he grinned.

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

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

“Howdy, howdy! Good morning!”

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

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

She laughed. “I can see that.”

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

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

“Sure I do.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“This here is catfish candy,” he smiled.


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

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

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

Lillie grew bored and rested her pole on a chair.

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

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

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

The kids would watch as each fish swam away.

All were quiet when Collie yelped.

“I got one, Papa, I got one.”

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

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

“Whoa!” Jason admired.

Collie laughed, excited.

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

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

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

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

“Yeah!” Collie shouted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Can we name it?” Lillie asked.

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

“Is that true?” she asked me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lillie jumped into the seat next to Lynn.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You okay?” I asked her.

“Um? Yeah, I’m okay. Whatever.”


“It does.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I know the divorce will have long-lasting effects.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Love you too, sugar.”

“Yeah, love you Uncle Hank.”

“I love you Tracy.”

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

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

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

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

Eventually, you have to cut them loose.

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