I wake up and feel hung over. Which I am, though not from booze. From laying in the dark, eyes open. From grinding my teeth until my jaws hurt. Because, really, I don't know if she can do it or not. All my declarations ("I'm not going to let you. . .") may be nothing more than false bravado. If we do go to court, maybe she'll win. It feels like a crap shoot. I think of all the areas where I fall short as a parent. There are a lot of them. I'm not the perfect dad. I'm not even in the running.
Mike is shaking my shoulder. I remember the previous two days' upheaval and breathe a silent prayer that we're through the worst.
"Daddy, " (he calls me that when he wants the security of feeling like a baby). "I made you coffee."
"Hey, thanks dude. Do me a favor, go flip on some cartoons and I'll be out in a minute."
I drift off again, though, and reawaken to find Gina standing beside the bed, pummeling my stomach and joyfully intoning, "Daaa-ie, Daaa-ie, Daaa-ie!" My name. I say, "Hey, sweetheart," kiss my fingertips and touch them to her forehead. I smell coffee and turn my head to find a steaming cup on the mattress by the pillow. Mike's gotten impatient with my morning response time. I reach over and take a sip. The stuff could strip the enamel off your teeth, but I still feel like my brains are made of peanut butter so I force it down anyway.
I hear the manic cacophony of the Mutant Turtles blaring from the living room. Gina hears it too and races off to see what the marketing devices are up to. I stand and stretch. Actually, given the circumstances, I feel surprisingly good. Well, at least okay.
In the kitchen, the counter is covered with a dark sludgy mess. There's a quarter inch of coffee grounds in the bottom of the pot. There's like a half pound of soggy grounds in the basket, but no filter. I check the refrigerator with faint hope only to find my worst fears realized--the coffee is, in fact, all gone. I start to call out for Mike, ready to do the whole drill: get in here, clean up this mess, and didn't you know you have to use a filter. . . but I stop. The coffee's his peace offer. The least I can do is not complain.
We watch the tube for a while, and I make breakfast. Mike wants his hair cut today. I spent my youth, it seems, arguing with my old man about haircuts. This kid's dad would let him wear a Mohawk, and he goes for military issue. Well, he's seven. We plan the day. There's a sitter coming at five. One of Mike's friends is coming to spend the night.
We drop off the laundry, pick up some groceries and come back to the house. I'm getting Gina out of the car seat when I see Mike toss something into the road. I hear it crack when it hits the pavement. It doesn't bounce much or roll. I know what it is.
"What'd you just throw?"
A long pause. "A rock."
"It was a snail wasn't it?"
"Yes," eyes downcast.
"You lied, didn't you?"
"As soon as we go into the house, you go to time out."
"Yes, Dad." He sounds weary, disappointed.
After time out, we talk about it.
"Why'd I send you to time out?"
"Because I threw the snail into the road."
"Right. . . I want to talk more about the snail. You know, when you threw him into the road, you took away his life. It might not be much, but it's the only life he gets. We don't hurt creatures just because we want to. Creatures have to look to us to take care of them. If I've got a reason to kill animals, I do it. Like when we eat meat, for instance. Some animal has to give up his life for that. Or when we get the place sprayed for roaches. We have to get rid of them 'cause they're full of diseases. But we don't kill something just for the heck of it, you know?"
He wants to go about his business, but I keep talking. I sometimes fear he'll remember me as the guy who just couldn't shut up.
"I want to tell you something. When I was about nine or ten, a bunch of other boys and I tortured a big toad. We dropped rocks on him and threw him against a wall. It didn't feel good, but I kept doing it anyway. Now it's almost thirty years later, and I still feel bad about that toad sometimes. I'm just trying to tell you I know boys do that kind of stuff, but it's better not to."
"Yes, dad." This time I let him go. I want to be his pal, not his teacher. It's a big weakness I have.
We go and get the haircut. I've promised him a toy this weekend. He wants something called a "G.I. Joe General." Which makes me shudder. I hope the damn thing's too expensive. To me, war is a thing I remember from my early adolescence. And those memories are not images of heroism or wisecracking Madison Avenue machismo. They are memories of My Lai, of nightly body counts, of napalm. TV images of burning children fleeing down rutted paths. Of Americans scarcely older than I lying dead on Ohio streets, felled by insect-masked Guards, barely more than children themselves.
I felt for our soldiers in Iraq. And I felt for the Iraqis. I didn't tie a yellow ribbon to my antenna.
The sitter's coming. It's too late to hit the toy store. We'll do it tomorrow. Mike takes it pretty well.
At home, he runs to his room. I chat for a while with Jennifer, the sitter. Who is eighteen and just moved in with her boyfriend. Who wants to be a model so is saving assiduously for some procedure to fix her already perfect teeth. I get into my biking gear and go into Mike's room to say good-bye. The air is thick with the smell of burning phosphorus.
"Where's the matches?"
"How'd you know?"
"Never mind that. Where's the matches?"
He produces them. I look for the burnt ones. He's been dropping them into a box. That also contains dirty clothes and papers. He's not trying to start a fire, he's just getting rid of the burnt ones. At seven, the divorce notwithstanding, he just doesn't believe something cataclysmic can really happen.
"Obviously, your friend's not coming to spend the evening. And you can forget the toy." His face crumples. "And you're in your room for the rest of the night. And maybe tomorrow."
And I go on. I'm furious. This, everything the two days preceding, and all the insane bullshit with my ex, and I've totally lost it.
"Listen buster, this is going to be the worst consequence you've ever had! You stay in here, and don't you dare give Jennifer any problems when I'm gone. You hear me? This would not be a good time not to listen!"
Back in the living room I tell Jennifer what's going on.
"If he wants something to drink there's stuff in the refrigerator. If he needs to go the bathroom, obviously that's okay, too."
She can see I'm really wired. "If you need some extra time just take it. I'm not doing anything tonight."
She's a good kid. Underline "kid." I'm twice her age.
Outside, I check my bike over quickly and add air front and rear. I ride fast through city streets to my favorite ditch bank. My legs are leaden, painful. I keep looking back at the free wheel to see if I'm in a tall gear. I keep pushing, though, and, after a while, the pain eases, my legs feel a part of me again. My tires leave pavement and I'm on the ditch bank, racing north, parallel to the river. When the pain comes again, I embrace it, a sensation more tractable than my thoughts and feelings, and I drive my thirtysomething legs even harder until the trail narrows and branches whip my face, scrape my arms and legs.