I hit pavement again and pedal home slowly. When I get back, Gina's asleep on the sofa. Jennifer's in Mike's room, helping him put his things away. I pay her with a check. She takes checks. We talk awhile. She knows, I think, that I have this sort of middle-aged crush on her, and she indulges me a little.
In Mike's room: "I apologize for getting so angry at you. I was way out of line there. It doesn't help anything and I'm really sorry. But the matches are a really big deal, so the consequence has to be really big. You could die. Or I could die. Or Gina. Or maybe all of us. Or we could lose the house. It's that serious. And you know it's one of your biggest rules. So here it is. . . no TV for a week, no new toys this month, you stay in your room the rest of the day and all day tomorrow. Except for one thing. You can come out of your room tomorrow to clean all the windows and mirrors."
He starts to cry, really bawling at the injustice of it all. And it must seem unjust. Something's driving this behavior--maybe, probably, the business with his mom, but he doesn't understand that. He's just reacting.
Later, Gina's fed and in her bedroom. Talking to Baeh (Bear). And Key Cat (Kitty Cat). Mike once told a guy in a restaurant that "she doesn't speak human yet."
I put Gina in bed and tell her goodnight. She says, "Kiss." Heavy on the sibilant "s." I lean over to kiss her goodnight, but she holds Baeh up to my face. I kiss Baeh. She holds Key Cat up to my face. I kiss Key Cat. Then she screws her lips into this kind of cartoon pucker, and I kiss her, too.
I go to Mike's room, but the kid's already asleep. I stand for a while, watching his chest slowly rise and fall. That strong little heart. He'll need that strength, plus any of my own that I can make available, to shake the blows that life's already dealt him. I stand there a moment, then walk to the bathroom and splash some water on my face. I know it's the 'Nineties and it's okay for men to cry, but I haven't gotten used to the idea.
I wake up the next morning to find Gina at the bed side. I'm laying atop the covers, still wearing my bicycle shorts from the day before. She runs her hand over my chest and says, "Haeh."
"Hair," I agree.
She pats the tattoo, a leopard, on my shoulder.
"Meeeeow," she says.
She walks down toward the foot of the bed then stops and puts her hand on my knee.
"Knee," I say.
I start to correct her again, but stop. She looks up at me in delight, her fine blonde hair falling across her forehead. It's one of those moments that makes you glad you're alive just so you could live it. Or maybe makes the fact that you're going to die some day just a little more acceptable because at least you've had a chance to love someone this much.
I make breakfast and wake up Mike. I let him come to the table to eat. Afterward, Gina plays with her favorite toy, a set of plastic farm animals, on the living room floor. I go to Mike's room and work on reading with him. He seems a little calmer, and I get the feeling that maybe the worst is over.
Later the phone rings. I snag it and say hello.
"Hi." The ex. "About what we talked about the other night, do you have to be so hurtful?"
"I didn't realize I was."
"Look, we're probably going to court over this, so I don't want to talk about it anymore until I talk to an attorney. I'm afraid I might say something to weaken my position."
"Okay, I understand that. I just wanted to tell you, I was over at Bobby's last night and he's not going to apply for the job in San Francisco. I just thought you'd want to know that."
"Well. . . thanks for telling me."
"Are the kids okay?"
"They're fine. Hey, I want you to know. I really meant what I said the other night. If this thing you have with this guy makes you happy, I'm all for it. I wish you the very best."
"Well. . . good-bye."
As I hang up, I think that she was right the other night, at least a little, about me being pissed over her relationship. I'm not jealous of him, though, for having her. I'm jealous of her for having someone. She's moving on, at least in this respect. Her life contains some intimacy. The female half of the race has failed to beat a path to my door, though, in the last couple of years. And they haven't seemed too eager for me to beat a path to theirs. I've been forced to admit that I'm nobody's Mr. Dream Date.
That evening, I let Mike out of his room for good behavior. He's on the living room floor playing with some army toys. Gina's on the floor beside him, still enthralled with the toy farm. She picks up a small plastic pig, wrinkles her nose and snorts. She picks up a miniature dog and says, "woof!" Mike crawls on hands and knees across the floor, pushing a drab green truck before him, making a diesel sound low in his throat.
Watching them, my kids at play, I know it's a moment of grace, this instant in time. And all these moments, even the ones that hurt, are, in their way, as blessing-packed as this one.
Because, somehow, a miracle has happened beneath this roof. A guy who saw kids mostly as obligation has become a father. A dad. And, somehow, this very uncertain dad, this very tender boy and this very tiny girl have become something that even the Quayles might call a family.
So. . . no San Francisco this time. For now, at least, it seems that Sunday nights like this one aren't numbered. The beast has opened his eyes but failed to notice us, out here where we seem so terribly fragile and so alone. He sleeps again, but I know that someday, perhaps soon, he'll reawaken.
And when he does, I'll muddle through. I'll do the best I can. It won't be perfect or even pretty. I'll try to forget how afraid I am.
And I'll continue to do the hard work of love.