I have a few bits of news to report and though I tried to keep this post on the short side, ya might want to get a cup o’ tea. I’ll keep it punchy, I promise.
It’s Saturday, officially the first day of summer vacation for everyone who lives in my house, except for me. It’s the first day of my second job: kid-wrangling. It isn’t going well so far. It seems the boys and I have different visions of how things are going to work around here on the unscheduled days. They thought they would indulge in screen time all day. Um, no.
They are now playing a disappointed game of chess while Little Man nurses what one might best describe as a hangover from sucking down a full two-liter bottle of leftover Coke, knowing that once our guests left I’d pour it down the drain. You know that experiment where they put things in beakers of Coke to watch them dissolve? It seems human tissue might dissolve from the inside out, too. Kindest Man suggested that Little Man would be like a hollow bubble and pop. Little Man didn’t think that was especially funny. Does one take a kid to see the doctor when they OD on Coke? (Coca-Cola that is.)
Speaking of hangovers and addictions and such… Ex was here. Right here in my house. Looking around the place at my things, meeting my people, eating the food I prepared. (Even the poisoned portions made especially for him. KIDDING.)
He came with his sister on Friday and took Zeep to his regular appointment at the psychiatrist’s office. Zeep used the opportunity to confront his father with some difficult feelings in a supportive and therapeutic environment. He talked about his disappointment and Ex’s alcoholism. I’m sure it was hard for Ex to hear. From the sounds of it Ex, for once, didn’t make excuses. He even apologized.
Afterward they went for dinner. Zeep was home and in bed before ten. I pressed his clothes and laid out everyone’s things for the morning’s ceremony. It was after one when I finally closed my eyes.
The next morning was frenetic, with three adults and four children primping and hustling to get to the auditorium on time. Kindest Man and his son met us there. I wore a striking sunny yellow dress, smart sandals, and a smile. I chatted with friendly parents whose kids have schooled with mine these last three years. We found seats on my son’s side of the auditorium. I scanned the crowd to see if Ex and his sister were in attendance. I scanned the entire auditorium three more times before I spied the pair, squeezed into seats a short distance away and below us. Ex was visibly nervous, tapping his foot and hands and nodding his head to some silent melody. He was still heavier and sadder-looking than the last time I saw him. His hair was grayer and thinner and sickly pallor showed through his tan.
The ceremony began. Our much-revered principal began by asking parents to observe the solemnity of the occasion by not calling out during the proceedings. Twice this was breached. The first was when one parent called out, “I love you, [son]” to much shhh’ing and looks of dismay and disgust from the more dignified among us. The second was a hoot from Ex when Zeep’s name was called.
It was rude. It was disrespectful of school administrators and faculty who have literally saved that kid’s butt. Seriously—what an asshat. After the ceremony Ex’s sister joked that Ex might be sent to “junior high jail” for the transgression. I was thinking special place in hell, but yeah…
Afterward the boy found us in the throngs of people packed into the lobby. We went outdoors to snap some photographs and Ex. His sister saw us and followed. Zeep reluctantly consented to pose with me. He was rude. He actually hurt me horsing around resulting in no salvageable images. There were six frames. In the first two he is scowling. In the second two he is hurting me by pushing my head away, and in the third two I am grimacing in pain. It was beastly behavior, especially when I was up until one in the morning pressing his clothes and making sure everything was ready for his big day.
As I started to move away from Zeep, Ex’s sister asked if she might take a pic of both of us—Ex and me—with Zeep. I was caught completely off guard. I was gracious. My son put his arm around me and I heard him whisper twice, “I really want this picture.” He smiled. I realized that all this represented something to Zeep that I don’t fully understand. I know he aches for wholeness, for two parents, intact and well. I stood tall and swallowed hard and applied a fake smile over the wince.
The part that ate at me in the aftermath was standing with my son as a seeming equal to a dirt bag. I do all the heavy lifting around here. All of it. The $100 bill Ex gave the boy “for graduation” is greater than the total child support Ex has paid over the course of months. Ex had no right to stand proudly in that photograph as though he had something to do with the kid’s success, especially when, in reality, he has tripped him time and time and time again.
“It was a picture of the gene pool,” my friend said gently, “…nothing more.”
Perhaps I should have politely declined, “I’m really not comfortable with that.”
Afterwards, I felt dirty and really just wanted to go home and take a shower.
The whole scene reminded me of another uncomfortable photo op from my past. When Sissy was just a baby and my father’s father was still alive, a favorite aunt (the artist—see below) organized a family reunion. My brother and I were invited along with my father and his new family. Most of the people there were not in the know on the story of our stormy relationships. They didn’t know that neither my brother nor I had seen or spoken with our father in years. They didn’t know that during the first half hour, I had been hiding in the kitchen, crying. They hadn’t seen us since we were kids living in an intact household and they remembered the kind of dad my father was then, which wasn’t bad as dads go.
Some distant cousin wanted a picture of our father “with his kids” by which he meant his old kids, the ones the cousin had known growing up. He may not have even known about the second set of kids. We posed awkwardly, the three of us. Shutters clicked. Then our father returned to his newer family. His wife blew a gasket when she realized that her children—whom we hadn’t yet met—had been excluded. As they left, you could hear her shouting across the parking lot, even though they were sealed in an SUV. As the vehicle pulled onto the road, she rolled down the window and threw the family cookbook into the dust.
I felt bad for her and I have a new appreciation for just how complicated these things can be. During all our post-ceremony shutter-bugging, Kindest Man, who has stepped up to do so much in Ex’s absence, stood watching. No one asked him to pose which would surely have upset Ex. (We got him in some frames back at the house later, as well as a few keepers of Zeep and I, his aunties, and almost everyone who walked in the door.)
After the ceremony Ex and his sister took Zeep for brunch and to play laser tag. Zeep said his father didn’t badmouth me at all this visit. “I commented to him about it, too. I said, ‘Usually by this time you would have called mom a bitch at least a few times. I appreciate that you didn’t.’”
“…and what did he say to that?” I asked.
“He said he had just decided not to let you push his buttons anymore.”
Of course. Because one is never responsible for one’s own behavior. If someone behaves inappropriately, someone else is obviously behind it pushing buttons. “Whatevs.” We’ll just call it progress.
Zeep happily reported that Ex didn’t drink at all while he was here. Not in his presence. That, my friends, is huge.
“Did you talk about it?” I asked.
“I told him I was glad he didn’t,” the boy said. “He said that he has pretty much quit drinking altogether for his new sweetheart.”
“That’s good,” I said.
…because, you know, quitting for your kids, well—they aren’t worthy, but the new squeeze is. My, what some men will do for pussy. (I guess that means the wedding to Ruth is off indefinitely.) “Whatevs.” We’ll just call it progress.
The party on Thursday was to have been a backyard event but the temperature soared to 100 degrees. People went out to roast their hot dogs and then hot-footed it sweatily back to the cool house. Ex and his sister wisely waited until the party was well underway to make their appearance. The house was full and there were plenty of people with whom they could converse who weren’t me. Some even had breasts, a real plus in Ex’s book. They were here for barely forty minutes. Interactions with me were minimal although I was within earshot most of the time.
Little Man came upstairs briefly. He gave his father a half-hug. Ex asked if he could take a picture and he looked very much as though he wanted to say, ‘no,’ but he nodded. Then Little Man went away. The next day, he went out to the driveway to say goodbye and hugged his aunt. That was all he saw of them.
At one point during the party, Ex’s sister was discussing her career and Ex said flippantly, “you wanna eat, you gotta work.”
I was standing behind him and I made eye contact with a friend in an are you effing kidding me?? sort of way. How do you think the kids eat, deadbeat?! Who is doing that work? …’cause it ain’t you.
Then he added, “unless you get invited to barbecues.”
I left the room.
As I was returning Ex’s sister was admiring a piece of art on my wall and Ex began to tell he the story of it, how it was a family piece, from the farm, and I had put it together because I am so creative like that.
Yeah, no. My artist aunt in Colorado made that piece.
It occurred to me that Ex would recognize a number of items from the time when we shared a home, items he hadn’t destroyed or sold when my things were in storage during the year of our escape. He might know the objects, but he probably had all the stories wrong. Still, he does know that there are stories. There are always stories. I am a collector of stories. Only the people you really love get to know the very best stories and only those who love you back keep them.
The day and the week were filled with people I love, including the good moms who drove 900 miles with their two charming kids to see us. There were some great highlights of their visit, and as much as I really would like to, I won’t bore you with them all. I will, however, share the details of one special evening. We went into the District and while the moms and Zeep walked solemnly through the Vietnam War Memorial, Sissy and Little Man and their two young friends caught fireflies on the National Mall. We placed them carefully into a plastic container. Once we reunited we walked to the Lincoln Memorial to climb the steps. Our friends were in awe of the colonnade, of Lincoln’s imposing figure, and of the view of Washington as those who see the marvel for the first time most-often are. There was a moment that made me cry when my friends’ six-year-old son asserted his sense of racial justice upon the realization that before either of his parents were even born the place we had been walking was where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered the I Have A Dream speech during the 1963 March on Washington.
“It’s wrong,” he said earnestly, “to dis—,” he paused, “…whatever that word is—because people are different.”
Yes, my young friend. It is.
Even with all the put-the-country-back-to-work construction on the National Mall, on a pleasant summer evening, it was still a beautiful view from the Lincoln Memorial. We walked around to the back portico overlooking Memorial Bridge, with Arlington National Cemetery in the distance. We sat down and my friends’ beautiful eight-year-old daughter took the lid off the firefly container. Thirty or so bio-luminescent winged friends lifted one by one into the twilight, like souls from the graves in the distance, released by the joy of children. The air was sweet and love was there.
How could things be other than okay?
While Ex was here I was unfailingly polite and hospitable. I offered food and drink (no alcohol, of course). When they left, I thanked them for coming. They thanked me for the gracious invitation. Then I had a round of high-fives with the good people who love us. Also, I had a very strong screwdriver courtesy of Kindest Man, and a fire-toasted marshmallow—the gluten-free vegan kind of course, with dark chocolate—courtesy of one increasingly lovely young woman in our company.
With regard to Ex and what we can call progress, the real measure will be in what comes next.
P.S. I’m saving news about MTSWW for another post, but do note—he wasn’t mentioned here.