Posts Tagged ‘birth family’

“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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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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I was already formally engaged, as we used to say, to the girl I was going to marry. But still, I sometimes went out on the town with girls of a different sort. And during the very week before the date set for the wedding . . .

“Hey Uncle Hank! Uncle Hank!”

I looked up from my book. “Yes?”

“Hey watch this!”

“I’m watching.”

“Okay, watch!”


Bart ran to the end of the diving board and jumped, sending up a big splash.

“Hey!” his brother Billy shouted from a float nearby. “He splashed me!”

Bart’s head emerged from the water. He swung his hair to one side. “Uncle Hank, did you see?”

“I did! That was a big splash, Bart.”

“You got me wet, butthead!” Billy complained.

“You’re in the water, moron! You are wet!” Bart bellowed, slapping water in Billy’s direction.


“Bart, please don’t splash your brother. Billy, maybe you should move your float while Bart is jumping. And both of you, drop the name calling. ”

“I was here first!”

“It’s a very big lake. I’m sure you can work this out.”

. . . out on the town with girls of a different sort. And during the very week before the date set for the wedding, in December, I was in an automobile accident at a time when one of those girls was with me. It was a calamitous thing to have happen . . .


I looked up from my book. “Yes, dear?”

Lillie held her belly and rolled her eyes. “I’m sta-aa-arving.”

My grandmother raised herself in her chair. “Do you want me to get some lunch for the babies?”

“No Nanny, they are fine, thank you. I’ll go up later to make lunch.” I turned to my daughter. “Lillie, we just had breakfast a little while ago. Why don’t you eat some of the grapes we brought with us?”

“I’m sick of grapes.”

“Well, then you can wait for lunch.”

“Baby, do you want some of these cheese crackers I brought?” Nanny reached for her bag.

“Yes! Cheese crackers, cheese crackers!”

“Wait, is she getting cheese crackers?” Bart shouted from the water. “I want some!”

“You just mind your jumping,” Nanny hollered back.

“That’s so unfair!”

“Well, I’m sorry,” Nanny wavered. “But you keep swimming.” She lowered her voice to me as Lillie took the crackers. “That boy just never stops eating. He can’t stand to miss any opportunity to eat some more.”

“Yeah, I’ve noticed.”

“Well,” her head bobbed on her shoulder. She lowered her voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “He needs to lose weight. That’s why I hid the snacks you got for your babies.”

“Probably a wise idea. You okay now, Lillie?” She nodded.

I looked at Jason floating across the slip on a foam noodle. Collie, wearing a life jacket and grasping another noodle, paddled behind.

“You boys stay on this side of the boat house, okay?”

“Okay, dad,” Jason yelled back.

“Dad, look how far I am!”

“I see, Collie. Just stay where I can see you.”

I watched for a moment longer. Things quieted down. I sipped my can of Miller Lite and returned to reading.

. . . automobile accident at a time when one of those girls was with me. It was a calamitous thing to have happen —not the accident itself, which caused no serious injury to anyone, but the accident plus the presence of that girl.

“Dad, will you swim with me?” Lillie asked. Her face was now sprinkled with orange crumbs.

“Uh, sure.” I put the book down. “Let me adjust your lifejacket, sweetie.”

“You want me to go fix the lunches?” my grandmother asked, beginning to stand.

“No ma’am, that’s all right. I’ll take Lillie up after our swim. You want to help me make lunch, Lillie?”

“Yes, if I can make my own. And Collie’s!”

“Deal. Let’s swim.”

“I don’t mind going,” my grandmother said.

I looked at the fifty-three steps leading uphill from the pier to the house. I looked back to my eighty-two-year-old grandmother.

“No, that’s okay, Nanny. It won’t take us but a minute to do it. Just keep an eye on the boys, okay?”

“Shoot,” she chortled. “If anything happens, all I can do I sit here and holler.”

“That’s about right,” I smiled, holding Lillie’s hands as we stepped into the water.

I didn’t mind making lunch. I had assumed that on this trip, as in previous years, I would be the head chef for my family vacation—that is, if we wanted three squares.

The night before, my brother Frank came over unannounced just as I was starting dinner. He brought two of his three boys.

“Hey Hank!”

“Well hey, Frank,” I smiled as he pulled me into a bear hug. “This is a nice surprise. I didn’t know we’d see you tonight.”

“No, neither did I.” He laughed. “But I got out of work early and so I decided, ‘Well hell, let’s go to the lake and see Hank.’”

“Dad, I’m hungry,” Bart whined.

“Well, get yourself something to eat,” Frank said. “And get me a beer while you’re at it.”

“Are you staying for dinner?” I asked.

“Sure, what are you making?”

“Pasta,” I said, opening a cabinet to trade the pot I had chosen for a bigger one. “Would you put this roast in the fridge and take out a chicken, please?”

I have to grin and bear this part of time with my family: the aversion, among some, to planning ahead.

My life in New York is set by schedules. I have my kids on certain nights and weekends. My work is delegated to overlapping deadlines.

With the time remaining, I plan dates and orgies.

All of these days are set well in advance.

There is very little wiggle room, but I don’t much mind. I like knowing what to expect, so I can plan for it.

I’m not sure how I arrived at this desire for order, but one thing is certain: I did not inherit it.

When my parents bought this lake house a decade ago, they were attracted to the fact that it was a good size to suit their needs and to accommodate the guests that are inevitably drawn to waterside properties.

There was a bedroom for my parents, another for my grandmother and a third for guests. There were two and a half baths, a nice kitchen and a living area large enough for a fold-out sofa.

Perfect for most weekends.

When I came for a visit, my kids went in the guest room. It was assumed I would sleep with my grandmother.

This is a long-standing family tradition. As I am up late, and my grandmother rises early, it makes sense that we share a bed, as we would only be in it together for a couple of hours.

Now, that plan works fine, unless my brothers decide to crash there with their families.

I have never understood why they would do this, as their own homes are only an hour or so away.

But when I visited, it was not at all unusual for the house to bed our entire family for the night.

My parents.

My grandmother.

Me and my three kids—four if Rachel joined us.

My brother Jesse and his two kids.

My brother Frank, his wife Sharon and their three sons.

My brother Lee, his wife Tanya and their daughter.

Nineteen people. Three bedrooms.

We slept on chairs and boats, in sleeping bags and hammocks, on a screened-in porch.

If everyone was staying over, I never knew where I would be sleeping from night to night. Chances were good I wouldn’t know who was staying over until they went to sleep.

Tanya and her daughter go to bed early, so they would take my place in Nanny’s bed.

I would usually tuck my kids into bed early and take whatever was left when everyone else had passed out.

This year was a little different.

Last autumn, a tornado had damaged part of the house.

The damage was not too severe, and the house was insured. My brother Frank resolved to make good use of the settlement by contracting the repairs himself. In the process, he designed an addition that would add three rooms to the house.

So it was that this year, for the first time, I had my own room.

Or at least, I did until Frank and his boys arrived. When I heard their voices at the door, I immediately wondered if they would take my bed.

“So,” I asked casually, as water boiled and I chopped chicken. “Are y’all staying overnight?”

“I wish I could, man, but I have to work. So the boys will stay, but I can’t.”

“Oh.” I stirred the sauce. “The boys are staying over?”

“Yeah, just for a couple of days. Then Sharon and I will come down too.”

“I see.” This was news to me. I kept my eyes on the sauce. “Well, you know Dad and Mom are working tomorrow and the next day, so Nanny and I will be the only adults.”

“Yeah,” he sipped a Miller Lite. “Is that all right? You know the boys are cool in the water. They are so excited to play with their cousins.”

The names of Frank’s boys all begin with the letter B: Buster, Bart and Billy. They are collectively known as the “Three Bs.”

Aka Brat, Bully and Baby.

No one would ever choose to be trapped with these children. They are wild and insatiable for attention.

But I am Frank’s big brother, and their Uncle Hank. And I have always hated the way my family considers the grandchildren as extensions of my generation. This fact has never worked in Frank’s favor. My kids are thought to be geniuses because I got good grades and went to college. Jesse’s kids are thought to be athletic and socially adept because he was a popular football player. Lee’s two-year-old girl is treated as a doll because he was the baby of the family. Frank was a difficult child, always in trouble. This was primarily due to the fact that his ADHD was undiagnosed until late adolescence. He was unhappy and suffering most of childhood.

We didn’t know this at the time. Back then, we just thought he was an asshole.

As a child, Frank fought Jesse and Lee all the time. I wouldn’t fight him. Fate had assigned me, as the eldest, with the role of peacekeeper. I would yell at Frank and Jesse for fighting, and grab little Lee away when Frank got too rough. Among us four boys, that passed for diplomacy.

Now, as an adult, I was having none of this theory that the grandchildren were variations on the four brothers. It annoyed me to see Frank’s boys considered hopelessly out of control, just as it annoyed me to see my own children assumed to be brainiacs.

They are all just kids.

“Sure, man. Leave them. We’ll have fun.”

What else could I say?

Still, the next day at the pier, as my grandmother and I supervised five children under the age of twelve, I made it clear that Uncle Hank is more lifeguard than party animal.

“Uncle Hank, can you give us ride on the Sea-Doo?” Bart begged.

“No, I have to stay on the pier to watch everyone.”

“Can we go out on the boat?”

“Nope, I don’t have a boating license.”

“You mean, we just have to just stay here and swim?”

“That’s right.”

“Gyah! That’s so lame.”

“I know. I’m pretty lame.” I looked at Lillie. “Ready to make some lunches, sweetheart?”


“Let’s do it.” I lifted my head to shout. “Jason, Collie, come back to the shallow water.” Lillie and I stepped out and collected towels. “Okay Nanny, you’re in charge.”

“Are you sure?” she shifted in her chair. “You don’t need help?”

“No, just yell loud if anyone goes under.”

That night, alone in my room, I finished the story I had tried to read all day, “The Old Forest” by Peter Taylor. It was included in a collection I had given my father twenty years ago, but never read myself.

The story’s narrator looks back on a car accident that occurred forty years earlier, in the Thirties, just days before his wedding. He had been traveling with a young woman who mysteriously vanished from the scene of the accident.

His fiancée joined in the search for the missing woman. Together, they discover a loosely knit subculture of shop girls who sidestepped the class hierarchy of Memphis society by creating their own support networks.

This allowed them a measure of freedom denied most women in their time and place, as they relied less on caste and wealth, and more on one another. If they looked out for one another, they reasoned, they could get what they wanted from the men and women who shopped in their stores—and their sons, who took them on dates with no hope of matrimony—to whom they were otherwise interchangeable “girls.”

I closed the book and took my bourbon outside.

I listened to crickets as I took a leak near a tree felled by the tornado. If I had gone inside to the bathroom, I might have disturbed Frank’s boys in the living room.

I settled into a seat on the pier, and watched the stars.

That’s the trick to personal freedom, I thought. Figure out the restrictions and work around them.

You may not be able to change the universe to your liking, but you can certainly create your solar system within it.

You can make your own freedom.

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My children were asleep in their beds, splayed in configurations wildly different from those into which they had originally been tucked. My parents were asleep in my bed, side-by-side, as they have been every night for over four decades.

It was a little after three in the morning. I closed the bedroom doors after checking on my sleeping family and returned to my desk. I looked forward to spending time with family, but dreaded the absolute loss of privacy that had already begun. For the next weeks, I would rarely be alone—and hence, I would have very few opportunities to work. I couldn’t help myself. I had to squeeze a little more solitude from these few last quiet moments at my desk. My last moments alone in New York.

Dad awoke shortly after dawn, and made his way to the kitchen. He put on a teakettle for coffee and began to make bacon and pancakes. He had asked me to supply the utensils and ingredients the night before, so I could sleep in. I had been awake on the couch since Dad first flipped on the kitchen light.

With breakfast underway, I got up to wake and dress the kids. Mom was watching television in bed, so I kissed her good morning.

I had suggested that Dad double my usual quantity of pancake batter. He was already on the second full platter of pancakes when we sat down, with plenty more to go. “I think Hank had me make so many pancakes just to keep me busy and out of the way,” he groused playfully from the kitchen.

“I’m just not that smart, Dad,” I said, cutting the kids’ stacks as they poured torrents of syrup. “But it sure did keep you out from underfoot.”

Dad retrieved the car as I washed the breakfast dishes and tended to some final packing. We loaded up and were soon underway. I volunteered to drive the first leg—just to get us out of the city, I said. With any luck, I would drive all day. It had been a while since I was behind the wheel.

We were on the turnpike when Collie requested our favorite road song.

Being in the navigator’s seat, Mom was in charge of distributing CDs. She pulled out the requested disk. I cued the song.

The kids were soon scream singing “Stacy’s Mom.”

“Excuse me, but what’s this song about?” my mother asked.

“Oh, they are singing what you think they are singing, Mom.”

“Oo-oo-kay,” she replied, extending her vowels in a querulous tone.

Hopefully, Mom would be napping when Lillie requested “Filthy/Gorgeous.”

Mom was accustomed to the notion that her Yankee grandchildren were a little different that her other grandbabies.

For their part, the kids were prepared for the occasional clash of cultures when we returned to the Deep South. Their mother had reminded them that south of the Mason-Dixon, it wasn’t kosher to take the Lord’s name in vain. I had already commended Jason that morning when an aggravation warranted a “Jeez” rather than a “Jesus Christ.”

Collie was beginning to refer to the family as “y’all,” though he did so by waving his fingers in the air as quotation marks.

Lillie laughed at Southern accents—she giggled as she loudly sang “Own the Road Aga-yun”—but recognized a particular awesomeness to the landscape of endless pine trees, “Crackle Barrels” and “Wall Marks.”

Lillie asked me to replay “Stacy’s Mom” over and again, encouraging Collie to offer his parody rendition as “Stacy’s Dog.”

“Okay, that’s enough of ‘Stacy’s Mom,’” I finally said, putting down my foot as we crossed into Pennsylvania. “Find other things to do, okay?” Collie and Jason reverted to collecting sightings of states on license plates. Mom pitched in to assist.

Dad interviewed Lillie’s dolls, asking their favorite colors, favorite songs, favorite foods, and so on, as their five-year-old agent offered thoughtful answers.

I drove. The Fountains of Wayne played on.

And the bourbon sits inside me
Right now I’m a puppet in its sway
And it may just be the whiskey talking
But the whiskey says I miss you every day

So I taxi to an all-night party
Park me in the corner in an old chair
Sip my drink and stare out into space

And now you’re leaving New York
For no better place

The Garden State was in my rear view mirror, and beyond that, Manhattan. My life there was on hiatus as I drove South.

Watching the white lines zipping under my hood, I took stock of things back there. Jesus Christ. My future was full of possibilities and not much certainty. Now, I was driving headlong into my past.

I pushed the eject button. “Hey Mom, would you please pass that John Hiatt CD?”

I didn’t say we wouldn’t hurt anymore
That’s how you learn, you just get burned
But we don’t have to feel like dirt anymore
Though love’s not earned; baby, it’s our turn
We were always looking for true north
With our heads in the clouds, just a little off course
I left the motor running, now if you’re feeling down and out
Come on, baby; drive south, with the one you love

Two days later, we were at my parents’ house. That first night, I fried chicken, mashed potatoes, boiled corn and cut fresh tomatoes. The kids chased Mom’s puppy, watched television and went to bed early.

My father and grandmother did dishes as Mom went to bed with the puppy. A few “good nights” and “I love yous” later, I was alone. I poured a tall bourbon and walked down to the lake.

I pulled off my shirt and sat on the pier, dangling my feet in the water. I sipped my bourbon, leaning back on bent elbows. You forget how many stars there are down here, I thought.

After a while I stood and unzipped my shorts. I kicked them off to one side and stood naked in the moonlight. I took another sip and put aside my glass. I stretched.

My dive broke the black stillness.

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“Well hey, y’all!” I hugged Mom.

Dad patted my back. “Howdy, howdy!” I hugged him, kissing his cheek.

I stood back and smiled. “Y’all look great! Come in, come in . . . how was the drive?”

Within moments of being with my parents, I could already feel my accent thickening, my New York skin shedding as I became Southern again.

My parents had driven to the city over the course of two days in order to keep a family tradition. Every summer, I take my children down south to visit family. With the expense of my divorce, I wasn’t sure we could afford to fly this year. (It only salts the wound to think that for the price of flying to my hometown, I could take the kids to Europe.) I don’t own a car—no need in Manhattan—and so, rather than consider the option of missing this summer, my parents volunteered to drive up to fetch their prodigal son and Yankee grandchildren.

Their arrival signaled the beginning of homecoming. For the next three weeks, I would put aside my identities as writer, lover and kinkster, and take up those of son, brother and uncle.

Even my name changes when I go home. I was named for my mother’s father, who died suddenly just before my birth. No one was ready for another “Henry” just yet, so I was raised as “Hank.” As a teenager, I switched names, glad to be rid of the teasing variations on my nickname that had followed me since elementary school.

Hankerchief. Hanky Panky. Spanky Hanky.

To the world I am Henry, but to my birth family, I will always be “Hank.”

Mom and Dad were staying with me for a few days. The kids would join us a day before we began to journey south. I gave my bedroom over to my parents, over their cursory objections. This room has the most comfortable bed and I can easily sleep on the couch.

Of course, I had previously scoured the bedroom for incriminating evidence.

After all, I had hosted a date the night before.

The room was swept clear of condoms and water bottles, the lube and sex toys put away.
I put out fresh sheets.

I removed a painting of a nude. I added a vase of flowers.

While Dad parked the car, I wheeled their luggage into my room. Mom covered my pillows with those she brought from home.

I had offered her a glass of water. She set it on the nightstand as she began to unpack a few things.

“Well, flitter, I spilled some,” she said. “I don’t know how, but I got your table wet.”

“No worries,” I said, running a finger through the liquid—yep, it was lube all right—while reaching for a tissue with the other hand.

My eyes scanned for discarded condoms as I wiped the mess. Did I miss anything else?

“So,” Mom asked, sitting on the bed. “How does Lucy the Bitch feel about you taking the kids home?”

“I don’t know. She doesn’t talk to me, really. I’m sure she will miss the kids terribly.”

“Well, she should have thought of that before she divorced you.”

“I reckon so. Anyway, she just had the kids out to visit her family, and for the same amount of time, so that’s just how it is.”

“And she can’t miss the kids anymore than you do when she has them.”

“That’s right, that’s right.”

There wasn’t much that I cared to add to my mother’s ongoing conversation theme about what a bitch I married, so I changed the subject to dinner plans.

My mother was blessed at birth with an unflinching certainty that anything that makes it from her subconscious to her tongue is gospel truth. My father long ago learned the value of letting her win every argument, a lesson imparted onto his four sons. Even as boys, we learned to sagely nod when Mom began to pontificate.

For a while during my teenage years, I indulged in a measure of rebellion once I realized that my mother’s certainty was based more on instinct than facts.

I would argue from the vantage of experts. If a book offered facts contradicting something my mother believed, I thought I should speak up to set the record straight. Even Mom would have to admit that her views were not always right. Mom made it clear that she did not have to make any such admission.

So I faced facts. I learned to close my ears to her certainty, to keep my nose buried in books, and to mouth my opinions elsewhere.

For this visit, I had already made a mental note to sidestep some particular conversational landmines:

George W. Bush. Mom believes that her president is doing a fine job. If the facts haven’t dissuaded her of these convictions, then I’m not likely to have any better luck.

Natalee Halloway. The local girl missing in Aruba was not dead, she had been sold into white slavery. She will turn up alive in Venezuela, and her kidnappers brought to justice.

Donald Trump. Mom is fascinated by the man whose name adorns some of the tackiest real estate in Manhattan. So far as she is aware, I share her high opinion of his business acumen.

If these subjects came up, I would simply keep a civil tongue. However, there was no avoiding the subject of my divorce from Lucy the Bitch.

My mother and Lucy had never made a secret of the fact that neither held the other in any special esteem. That’s difficult enough, but worse still, it had always been important to each of them that I am on her side, not her side.

“Your mother is the stupidest woman alive,” my wife would laugh derisively.

“I know you love her, Hank, but Lucy is a very rude woman,” my mother would sadly note.

In each case, I would nod and wait for the subject to change.

My parents and I spent a very pleasant few days together as they relaxed from their long trip. Finally, Lucy brought the children to the apartment to begin their visit with my family.

The kids were excited to see their grandparents. Lucy hugged my father and mother in turn. Convention dictated that she stay for some polite conversation. She declined my offer of a drink and remained standing in the living room.

I busied myself with the children.

“Well, did y’all have a good time with your family?” my mother asked.

“Yes, “ Lucy nodded, her mouth firm. “Yes, we did.”

“That’s nice. Did y’all see your sister? She’s married now, right?”

“Yes, we did. She married in the spring.”

“I recall the children were at the wedding. I don’t guess Hank was?”

“No, just the kids.”

“Well, I’m happy for her. I always liked your sister. You tell her I said hello.”

“Sure, will do.”

I was in the kitchen when I overheard the conversation taking its predictable turn.

My mother had packed her soapbox.

“All I know is, if they had kept better records on those terrorists, the World Trade Center would still be standing.”

“But the government can’t just round up all Arabs and assume they are terrorists! That reeks of Big Brother.”

“Oh, I don’t know about that. Tell you what, I think Big Brother was right about something. They should put satellite tracking devices on every baby born in this country. If they did, we’d know where Natalee Halloway is, that’s for sure.”

“Well,” Lucy laughed, heading to the kitchen, “I guess we have to disagree on that!”

She came into the kitchen and grabbed my arm. I flinched instinctively. “I can not stay in a room with that woman!” she whispered. “She’s crazy!”

“Okay, well, you can go. Do we have everything we need for the kids?”

“Oh yes,” she nodded, eyes wide. “Oh yes. God, how did you come from that woman?”

“The conventional way, I guess. So we’ll call from the road.”

“Fine.” She turned to shout. “Kids! I’m leaving. Come say goodbye.” The kids hugged their mother and she was gone.

Mom looked surprised. “Well, that was abrupt.” Dad grimaced and shook his head.

“Yeah, I guess,” I said. “So who wants to go to Patsy’s for dinner?”

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