You know he has a kid, but right now it’s whatever. Right now it—the Kid—is a safe distance from you, far, far away on the remote island called Dad’s Just a Rebound. It is early days. If the Boyfriend has the Kid, which is half the week, you don’t even talk on the phone until the Kid is asleep. The Kid doesn’t know you exist, in this context or any other, and truth be told, you don’t ask that much about him, either, but you’re not a total asshole. You know enough to look pleasant and interested when he talks about him. You learn he plays Little League, which is nice. You learn he gets pancakes on Sundays, also nice. You learn the two of them slouch around in beanbags all weekend, playing video games.
“Well, not all weekend.”
“Are they violent?”
“Violent? No! No. Clowning.”
“Clowning with guns?”
“Just silly boy stuff. Father-son bonding.”
“Oh,” you say. “That’s nice.”
You have no intention of ever meeting the Kid, so logically you should not be dating the guy in the first place. At the very least, you should wrap this thing up. But it’s hard to find the right time when he holds you in his arms and fucks you like that, standing up, no wall. Or when he lays you down, spreads your legs, and takes an hour not touching you at all, just looking at you carefully, telling you how fucking small you are, and how pink, and how beautiful you smell. Or when he puts you in his bed and reads aloud The Wind in the Willows, his big arm resting gently on your chest, his elbow near your collarbone, his fingers just beneath the edge of your underpants, until you’re falling asleep, until you’re falling in love with him.
You tell yourself, “Kid, schmid.”
You tell your friends, who ask why you’re doing what you’re doing, “It’s not a big deal.”
You tell your mother, who grips your biceps and whispers with soupy eyes that entering a child’s life is a very, very big deal, “I know, Mom, Jesus!”
On your first date, the three of you get ice cream and walk the jetty, the ocean swirling against the rocks, cowlicked and pale. You feel anxious and strung out, your tongue thick as a futon, although you’ve pulled it together somewhat with lipstick and Xanax and long glass earrings. The Kid stumbles ahead, his feet bigger than he’s used to, his windbreaker billowing because he refuses to zip up. Besides the bad bowl job from Supercuts and the teeth, which are bucked and khaki-colored, he is objectively good looking, which means so is his mother.
“Careful!” he yells to you, pointing dramatically to each rock he’s just vetted. “That one moves a little!” He has been showing off his knowledge of sports stats, eager to stump his father. “Cy Young career wins?” he shrieks into the wind.
“Three-hundred-forty-one?” the Boyfriend shouts, discreetly hooking his thumb inside the waistband of your jeans, whispering in your ear that later, when the Kid goes to bed, he’s going to get you naked, lay you facedown across his lap, and make you come for his—
“God, I don’t—hey,” he says to you, pulling his hand away. He mouths the right answer in your ear then says to you loudly, “You don’t know, do you?”
“Geez,” you say, pretending to think. You are so turned on you can barely breathe. “I’m feeling like it’s—I’m probably wrong.”
“Guess!” the Kid yells.
You feign doubt, defeat. “Five-hundred eleven?”
The Kid whips around, his lips licked so big and red he looks like your great Aunt Lois. “How did you do that?”
“Hey, buddy,” you say. “Come here.” When he does, you grab the hood and pull it over the Kid’s head. “I know hoods are crappy,” you say. “But having no ears would be crappier.” You feel the Boyfriend watching as you zip up the Kid’s coat, carefully, so it doesn’t snag his chin. You realize how badly you want him to approve of you, to think that you are worthy of his child.
That you would make a good mother.
In the beginning, the Boyfriend is eager to show you their life, and you are eager to show you can fit into that life, and the Kid, thinking you are just a friend, is eager to show off, and in general everyone has a pretty great time.
At the house, the two play PIG with the six-foot Little Tikes plastic basketball hoop in the living room while you watch, hooting, the Boyfriend dedicating each shot to you, the Kid making you kiss the ball for good luck.
At the grocery store, the Boyfriend and Kid make you crawl into the cart and the two take turns whizzing you down the ice cream aisle.
At night, you watch the Kid’s favorite movie, The Toy with Richard Pryor, the Kid in the middle of the couch, an arm draped awkwardly around each of your shoulders.
And after four months, eleven movies, one Celtics game, one stomach flu, twelve apple cider donuts, two bloody noses, one Halloween night in which you three are a blender, a toaster, and a pepper grinder, twenty-three frozen pizzas, and seventeen ice cream cones—which, off-season, the Kid calls “winter cream”—you and the Boyfriend decide to rent a house together, because you’re in love and it’s what you do when you’re in love.
You look for places on a Kid-Free Weekend. You see one that looks perfect, but the realtor can only show it on Monday. Monday is a Kid Day.
“Too bad,” the Boyfriend says.
“Can’t we take him with us?”
“Feels like a lot to ask, dragging him around.”
“Don’t you want to find a place?”
“Yeah,” the Boyfriend says. “You’re right.” But he looks nervous.
You find half a Victorian with ceilings so high you’d have to stand on the sills to pull down the shades. While the Boyfriend checks out the basement, you explore the rest of the place with the Kid, flipping light switches, opening china cabinets, pretending to look for him—“Kid? Kid, where are you?”—when he runs ahead and closes himself in a closet. You scurry up the stairs and take in the view. “See that blue strip?” you say. “That’s the harbor!” You ruffle his hair, and when you put your arm around him, he sort of hugs you back.
“Want to live here?” you say.
“I think it’ll be fun.”
“Yeah,” he says. “You can visit if you want!”
Downstairs, you corner the Boyfriend in the kitchen.
“He doesn’t know.”
“Nah, he does.”
“So you told him.”
“Well, I mean—why else would we be moving?”
You blink at him. “Yes or no.”
“Can you cut me some slack? This is—” He sighs a trembling sigh. “I’ll go ask him.”
“You mean you’ll tell him.”
“Right,” he says. He looks stricken and pale. “That’s what I mean.”
But later, at dinner, the Kid won’t look at you. He pulls all the cheese from his pizza, slowly, and lets it drop like a bloody sock on his plate.
“He hates me.” You’re in bed, your heart flapping like a castanet. “Just say it.”
“Nope. I asked him.”
“That’s fucked up.”
“You asked if he hated me?”
“Yeah. No! I just asked what he thought.”
“What’d he say?”
“He said he likes you.”
You think about this.
“What if he’d said he didn’t? What would you have done?”
“I don’t know,” he says. “Nothing.”
Moving is difficult, especially when consolidating two households. Extra couches, dining room tables, dish sets—what to do with them? Do they go to Goodwill, and if so, whose? And what about the furniture that stays? There is a clash of taste and style, and you do your best to find places for it all. The living room is a strange shape, and you aren’t sure how to arrange the furniture without blocking the bay window. You’re working with your couch and his chair, your coffee table, his TV and your TV stand, the antique armoire he picked off a garbage truck. But the balance is off. Maybe it’s the lighting. You begin to change the lamps.
“Wait, wait,” the Boyfriend says. “I got it!” He goes to his truck and reappears lugging the six-foot Little Tikes plastic basketball hoop, which he places—“Wow,” you say, “hmm, not quite sure if that’s what I was”—triumphantly in the bay window.
“There!” he says. “I knew something was missing.”
On your first Friday night in the new place, you get Chinese and stay up late watching The Toy, the Kid in the middle as usual, the Boyfriend’s arm along the back of the couch, surreptitiously touching your neck. You feel cozy and happy, excited for your new home and your new little family, and you hit pause and ask if anyone’s up for a snack.
“Yeah!” the Boyfriend says.
“Yeah!” the Kid says.
You pop corn the old-school way and serve it in a salad bowl, snowy with salt. You make your mother’s Italian hot chocolate and bring it to the boys in matching mugs. The Boyfriend moans as if in a porno. “See this woman here?” he says, swiping his mouth clean with his palm. “This woman is magic.”
The Kid takes a cautious sip.
“The best, huh?” the Boyfriend says.
The Kid tosses the cocoa around in his mouth, deliberating, and you wait for the verdict. Your stupid heart pounds. “No offense,” he says, finally, after an effortful swallow. “But my mom’s is better.”
“Aww, buddy,” the Boyfriend says, winking at you. “That’s a nice thing to say about Mom.”
Because you are a Man, a Woman, and a Child under the same roof, there is an expectation that you will spend your weekends together. But what should that look like? The Kid, who always seems surprised to find your car still in the driveway, is waiting for another day of Nonstop Fun with Dad to start. Their monogrammed bags are singing out to them, a chorus of beans. There are Pop-Tarts to wolf and footballs to accidentally send soaring into the Rothko print. Later, if they’re feeling up to it, they might go to GameStop and blow Dad’s money on another video game. If not, there’s always laser tag at Laser Quest, a half-day at the batting cages, and if Dad has to answer a few work e-mails, not an issue—the Kid can self-soothe with his PlayStation 4 until they order pizza.
A used bookstore? What’s that?
The Boyfriend is stressed. The Kid has already been through a lot. His whole little life—it’s too much all at once. But the Boyfriend wants to make everyone happy.
“How about we get you a baseball mitt?”
You play catch in a triangle formation—the Boyfriend to you, you to the Kid, the Kid to the Boyfriend. You aren’t athletic, you never played sports, but you’re better than you thought you’d be, and you’re stupidly proud, convinced you’ll impress the Kid with your mad skills. The day is warm and full of birds. The Boyfriend loves watching you catch, watching you throw, the way your body moves. He keeps giving you that look, the one that says he’s going to fuck you the minute he gets a chance.
“Look at her!” the Boyfriend says. “She’s an ace!”
“Dad!” the Kid yells, waggling his glove at his father. He does not want to look at you. He does not want you to be an ace. “Back here!”
“Coming at you!” the Boyfriend says, and throws it to the Kid instead of you.
You hold your mitt up, thinking the order has changed and that the Kid will now throw to you and you to the Boyfriend, but the Kid just throws back to the Boyfriend. So the Boyfriend, to keep you in the mix, throws the ball to you, and you, to get the circle going again, make a gesture to the Kid, as if you’re about to throw to him, but his back is to you, and he’s chipping a hole in the grass with his toe.
One day the Ex-Wife calls the Boyfriend and tells him that it appears all the Kid did last weekend was “errands with Dad and Denise.” Errands, she says, should be done on the Boyfriend’s own time, when he doesn’t have the Kid. If he can’t put his child first, she says, if he’s too busy doing “errands with Denise,” he should just give her full custody.
“I thought you said she was normal.”
“She is,” the Boyfriend says. “Most days.”
“So this is one of the other days.”
“Don’t worry about it.”
“Kids can’t choose every—I mean sometimes they just have to do normal—We did other things he liked. Jesus Christ. We went to GameStop!”
“I know,” the Boyfriend says.
On a rainy Saturday, you try to make the day fun and cozy. You play hide-and-seek, giving the Kid hints when he can’t find the Boyfriend. You make a sheet and pillow fort in the living room and serve everyone grilled cheeses in it. Later, you all watch The Toy. Twice. When it’s over, everyone is glassy and dulled, the Kid sullen. You suggest venturing to the North End for a cannoli, but the Kid doesn’t want to. He is moping on the couch, his hands piled existentially on his forehead.
“You okay, buddy?” you say, but he won’t answer.
In the kitchen, you ask the Boyfriend if he’s sick.
“I don’t think so,” he says, but he looks distracted and wanders into the living room. You hear a raspberry blown on skin, then laughter, then murmuring. He returns with his jacket on. “We’re going to get a cannoli.”
“Great!” you say. “I’ll grab my—”
“We might go just us.”
“Can he stay home alone?”
“Me and him, I mean.”
“I think he might need some fun time.”
You think about this. “Hasn’t the whole day been fun time?”
“Well. Dad time, I guess.”
“Look, I don’t know,” the Boyfriend says. Is he sweating? He seems to be sweating. “How about a nice bath?” He hustles into the bathroom, drops to his knees, starts spraying the tub with cleaner. “There’s Epsom salts in a box somewhere,” he says, scrubbing wildly, “if you feel like—”
The Kid is standing in the mudroom, bashing the toe of his sneaker into the door.
The Boyfriend drops the brush with a clatter and stands up, flushed. “I’ll get you one,” he says. “Plain or chocolate chip?”
You shrug. “Plain, I guess.”
“Back soon,” he says, kissing you on the forehead—“Okay, bud, let’s do this!”—and then they’re gone.
People ask how it’s going and you say that everything is great. They ask how the Kid is, and you say, “Nice!”
“You should see the two of them together. He’s a mini-me!”
You take pictures of the Kid pitching at his Little League games, dancing with your cat, posing in fake moustaches, and you send them to your friends and family, proudly, as if he were your own. You’re pretty sure that’s how you feel, anyway.
At least you think that’s how you should feel.
After work, you look forward to catching up with the Boyfriend with a glass of wine like you usually do. But if it’s a Kid Day, when you get home the two will be in their beanbags on a bed of Dorito crumbs, thumbing their PlayStation 4 controllers, fist-bumping, shouting, duuuuuude-ing. They will be so engrossed they will barely look up.
“What are you guys playing?” you say.
“Sit!” the Boyfriend says, patting his beanbag. “You can sub in for me.”
You go to sit down, but then you see the Kid’s eyes turn to pink glass. He blinks rapidly and turns his head away.
“Honestly,” you say. “I should get dinner going.”
“Let’s just get a pizza.”
“I don’t want a pizza,” you say, and wander into the kitchen.
You tell yourself whatever, it’s fine, you love to cook, and you can give your mother a call, and you hate those video games, anyway, and this buys the Kid time to be with the Boyfriend whom, seeing only half the week, he has missed, and buys you time to be away from the Kid, whom, seeing at least half the week, you haven’t exactly—
Well, missed isn’t the word you would—
You drink a lot of wine and eat a lot of chips and make a lot of noise with some pots.
“Everything okay?” The Boyfriend has come into the kitchen.
“Pause it, buddy!” he calls out to the Kid. He kisses the side of your neck, under your ear, then grabs two seltzers from the fridge. “Love you,” he says.
“Yeah,” you say, as he heads back into the living room. “Love you.”
While you’re not the Kid’s mother, you are trying to play the part by, for instance, making the Kid’s lunches, and buying groceries for said lunches, and when you do laundry, collecting his clothes from his room and sometimes even stripping his sheets, which you scan warily for whatever, and lugging them down to the basement. And when one morning the Ex-Wife calls the Boyfriend and tells him the Kid has a fever and that this is now the Boyfriend’s problem, prompting a vein on the Boyfriend’s forehead to bulge thick as a hose because he has to give a presentation to the CEO in ninety minutes, you offer to call into work.
The Boyfriend says it won’t happen again.
He says you are a beautiful little miracle.
“Yeah, yeah,” you say.
You wait for that Audi to pull up, and when it does, you stand in the doorway and watch the Ex-Wife mash the Kid’s face in her breasts as if he’s being deployed to Iraq, and as he trudges up the steps, head down, you open the door for him—“Hey, buddy, so sorry you’re sick!”—and, not knowing what else to do, wave a friendly wave to the Ex-Wife and call out a friendly “thank you!” to her cashmere back. You go inside, where the Kid is sprawled on the rug unhappily tossing the remote, and begin to flutter around him, draping the couch with a bottom and top sheet, invitingly folding down a comforter, propping couch pillows behind his normal pillow so the Kid can eat his jasmine rice and still see the TV, and offering him organic ginger ale in the last of your beloved dead grandmother’s fancy wine glasses because, you explain, everything tastes better in her wine glass, and later, when he knocks it off the coffee table by accident, you say, on your hands and knees with the dustpan, it’s fine, buddy, it’s totally fine, he should see all the glass you’ve broken in your day, really, it could fill a bathtub.
After dinner, you look forward to cuddling with the Boyfriend while you watch TV like you usually do. But if it’s a Kid Day, when you get to the living room, the Kid will have beaten you to it and will already be leaning against the Boyfriend with his legs up, happily wiggling his feet. “Here she is!” the Boyfriend says, gazing lovingly and obtusely at you, and you stand there, incredulous, blinking at the Boyfriend’s arm slung across the Kid’s shoulder, at those toast colored socks on your pricey white couch, and you opt for the chair in the corner—one of the Boyfriend’s contributions to the household, some sentimental wingback not unlike an upholstered Triscuit—because even though you could technically squeeze in by the Kid’s feet, you’d rather sit on a gas station toilet.
You take the Kid to and from school sometimes. On the drive, you turn on the radio and teach him the musicians. If the Kid knows real music, you say, everyone will think he’s a badass. This is Heart, you tell him. This is the Stones. This is Led Zeppelin, the Doobie Brothers, Joni Mitchell. Joni Mitchell can be kind of a downer, you say, but she’s cool. She tunes her guitar weird. You let him swear, too, anything he wants, and sometimes, when he begs and begs, you drop a new one on him—clusterfuck, bitch-slap, cocksucker—as long as he promises to use them only in your car. And if you pinky swear not to tell anyone—you are the only person who knows, he says—he sometimes talks about the girls he likes, Kelsey and Olivia. Kelsey has dark hair, he says, and Olivia’s is lighter, like yours. “Have you ever had crushes?” he says.
“Other than your dad?”
“Who was the best?”
“You mean the worst?”
“The guy before your dad.”
The Kid’s face lights up. “What color was his hair?”
“Brown,” you say, pulling up to the curb. “Almost black, like iron.”
“Iron,” the Kid says, nodding gravely, unbuckling his seatbelt. “Wow.”
On Friday, you pick him up after he’s been with his mother. “How’s Kelsey?” you say. “How’s Olivia?”
“I don’t know,” he says.
“Oh, come on!” you say. You glance at him in the rearview mirror. “Did Kelsey talk to you at lunch today?”
The Kid crosses his arms and stares out the window. “I don’t want to tell you,” he says. “I only tell my mom.”
At bedtime, you look forward to having sex or chatting or doing whatever you usually do in bed at night. But if it’s a Kid day, you will have to wait for The Routine. This is when the Boyfriend follows the Kid upstairs while you wait in bed with your thumb up your ass. You will hear them chatting, laughing so hard you can feel it in the walls. A lot of time will pass. It will be late. You will count to ten and back to zero and tell yourself that these rituals predated you, that the Kid loves his dad, that their time together is precious, that he does not want to share it with his dad’s girlfriend. Having two parents who are still happily married, you also tell yourself you can’t possibly understand how he feels. He is a good kid. He is eight, and doing his best to adjust, and has had no choice in this matter. In the order of most choice to least, the Boyfriend comes first (his first wife, the Kid, his divorce, you), you second (the Boyfriend, but not the Kid), and the Kid last (not his parents’ divorce and not you). Even on your worst days, you know at least some of the Kid’s worst days are worse than yours.
But after another million minutes, you shut off the light and lie in the dark, simmering, and when the Boyfriend comes in, finally, you pretend to be asleep, even when he presses his lips to each shoulder blade, rolls you gently on your back and takes your nipple in his mouth, and once he has given up and fallen asleep, himself, you shove him awake and ask him why he took so fucking long.
“I was putting him down.”
“Is he an infant?”
“Then you weren’t putting him down.”
“Whatever you want to call it.”
“Yeah,” you say. “An hour of it.”
“I know,” the Boyfriend says. “But he likes it.”
“I haven’t seen you all day.”
“What do you mean?” he says. “I got home before you.”
For the Kid’s ninth birthday, the Ex-Wife decides that she and the Boyfriend will take the Kid and his two best friends, Timmy and Jackson, to Canobie Lake, the amusement park two hours away. The Boyfriend will pick up the Ex-Wife and the Kid at 8 am sharp, she says, and then they will pick up Timmy and Jackson, and head to the park, where they will spend the day, and at 4 pm, they will return to town for a 6:30 pm reservation at Montilio’s, the Kid’s favorite Italian restaurant.
“Let me get this straight,” you say. “You’re all driving to Canobie Lake like a big happy family?”
The Boyfriend tosses his hands. “I don’t know. We’re his parents.”
“We can get along for a day.”
“Can I come?”
The Boyfriend cringes. “She didn’t mention it.”
“Why does she get to decide?”
“She got to it first, I guess.”
“Exactly,” you say. “To make sure I couldn’t come!”
The Boyfriend sighs. “It’s the Kid’s birthday,” he says. “Why are you making this about you?”
“I’m not,” you say. “But it’s weird.”
“I know,” he says. “But what am I supposed to do? Call her back and say I’m not coming because you aren’t invited?”
“Whatever,” you say. “I hope it rains.”
The Boyfriend divorced the Ex-Wife for many good reasons, one of them being that she is an asshole, and who, now divorced, is even more of an asshole and is waging a Spoiling War for Favorite Parent. There are $1,800 laptops, $1,000 cameras, $430 North Face jackets, $250 Nike high tops. There is a playroom appointed with a wide screen TV, three game consoles, and a Ping-Pong table, not to mention the TV in his room, which is the master bedroom—she took the smaller room down the hall—and the king bed. And when she rescues him from your place, in the brand new Audi he picked out himself, he will find his charged iPad on the backseat and a lollipop the size of a stop sign for the seven-minute drive to her house.
What this means for you is that when the Kid comes back, he is shrill and anxious and insatiable, crashing from late nights of TV, writhing on the couch with delirium tremens sans iPad, disconsolate at the reasonable size of his ice cream portions, and the Boyfriend, who finds the Spoiling War contemptible but is unwilling to lose it altogether, appeases him with unlimited video games.
You know it’s none of your business. You try to be whatever about it. You try to take deep breaths from your belly like the yoga people.
But the guns.
“Why is that shit in the house?” you say. “Aren’t those things rated?”
He looks sheepish. “I was a little out of it, with the divorce.”
“They’re too violent.”
“Okay, okay,” he says. “I won’t let him get that kind next time.”
“But what about all the ones he has now?”
“What am I supposed to do?”
“Get rid of them.”
“I can’t change his routine on him like that.”
“Routine?” you hoot. “You mean his school shooter training?”
He stares at you.
“I appreciate your input,” he says, coolly. “But I need to handle this my own way.”
Kids can be gross little assholes on a good day, even if they’re your own. There are the constant grabs for attention—“Dad!” “Dad!” “Dad!” “Dad!” “Dad!” “Dad!” “Dad!” “Dad!” “Dad!”—the hoof-like footfalls, the vinegary socks, the alley smell of aim-anywhere urine, the plump slugs of toothpaste spat into the bathroom sink, the wet towels seeping into beds or stripping the polish from dining room chairs, the shirts used as napkins, the shirts used as Kleenex, the whining, the moping, the deafening absence of please or thank you, not to mention the sensory violation that is mealtime.
But these are not good days.
The kid you are living with is very much not your own.
But parenting is under the purview of the Boyfriend, who likes to handle things “his own way,” which means not doing—or even noticing—anything at all. And because you are not a parent, you can’t say or do shit. You can’t, for example, tell the Kid to pull his bangs out of his soup. You can’t train him in the Olympic physicality of opening a dishwasher. When you are crying to the Boyfriend about your awful day at work, you can’t tell the Kid to stuff it when he interrupts for dessert. Instead, you stand there, sniffling, and watch the Boyfriend as he vigorously stirs the ice cream into a stiff swirl, just how the Kid likes it, the Kid leaning over, inspecting the job, and then taking it to the table.
Later, instead, you unload it all on the Boyfriend. The words burst from you, like bats.
“Don’t you think he should be saying thank you? Seems a little rude and, I don’t know, spoiled?”
“His chewing, wow. That’s a pretty rough scene.”
“Have you noticed he interrupts a lot? Kind of constantly? Tough to have a conversation.”
“Does he have to stomp so loud? He shakes the whole house. I mean, is there a reason for it? Maybe there’s something wrong with his legs?”
“I’m wondering if he could start carrying his weight a little? Like, I don’t know, clear his place at the table? When I was that age I cleaned the whole—”
“You’ve got a lot of opinions,” he says, getting out of bed with a snap of blankets.
“And I’m sure you’re right,” he says, grabbing his shirt from the floor and pulling it over those pecs, that rippling boxer’s back, misstepping and stepping into his shorts, running his hand through his hair, which is wavy and thick and the color of butter, and which you love to hold onto, and also which, because you couldn’t keep your mouth shut, it looks like you won’t be doing tonight. “But can we limit them to a few a day? I mean, he’s my kid.”
“Where are you going?”
“I don’t know,” he says. “I just need a minute.”
On Kid days, you have still been making dinner while they do their thing. But Jesus Christ. You have a full-time job, too, and aren’t the only one capable of cooking, and it’s not your problem that the Boyfriend is divorced and only sees the Kid half the week. What you’d like is for the Boyfriend to hang out and cook with you like he does when the Kid is at his mother’s.
“I’d love to,” he says. “But I don’t necessarily have an hour to kill in here with you.”
“You kill it with him.”
“But that’s kind of my job.”
“He’s nine. He can entertain himself for a bit.”
“I can’t just leave him in there.”
“It’s the living room,” you say. “It’s not a hot car.”
“I know,” he says. “But it feels funny.”
“Didn’t you cook with her?”
“That was different.”
He sighs. “I just think he feels left out.”
“Yeah?” You slam down a dishrag. “Join the club.”
“Okay,” he says. He looks baffled. “But he’s just a kid.”
You get to the point where the mere sound of car doors slamming in the driveway makes your chest tight as an asshole. You will have just sat down on the couch with tea and a book when they storm your house, shouting and roughhousing, the Boyfriend, having snapped out of Boyfriend Mode and into Buddy Mode, now too constrained and preoccupied to kiss you, the Kid dropping his backpack on the floor of the living room you’ve just tidied and turning on the PlayStation 4—“Give Denise a hug, buddy,” the Boyfriend says, before you and the Kid move toward each other, stiffly—and for the next two days—three, if it’s the weekend—you pace outside the living room, looking in at them there, on those fucking beanbags.
Before Father’s Day, you pull the Kid into the kitchen and in your best conspiratorial voice ask him what he’d like to give the Boyfriend.
He thinks about this. “Maybe a new bike?”
“How much cash you got?”
The Kid frowns. “Banana bread?”
The next morning, you line up the ingredients and drape an apron on the Kid. You have asked the Boyfriend to go to the gym for ninety minutes.
“Ever crack an egg?” The Kid shakes his head. You demonstrate with the first, hand him the second. “Just hit it on the edge.”
The Kid whacks the egg and drops it in, all shell. Most of the white slips down the side, onto the counter.
“Decent,” you say. “Just pick out those tectonic plates and we’ll be in business.”
He chases the shells for a while with a spoon.
“They’re too quick.”
“Use your fingers.”
He cringes. “I don’t want to touch it.”
You show him how to mash bananas, grease a pan. Everything is half-assed. There is a lot of sighing and slouching and staring, slack-jawed, at the ceiling fan. The floor is a Pollack of batter. For the ten minutes you spend washing dishes, his contribution is to grab the fridge handle, hang from it with both arms, and then let the door swing open with his own weight. “Ow,” he says, each time he smashes into the counter. “Ow.”
You could kill him.
“Just go,” you say.
“Sure,” you say, and within seconds you hear the chirp of the PlayStation 4.
A half hour in, the smoke alarm goes off. You wave at the thing with a dishrag, but another one in the living room has started up, too, where the Kid is. You run into the room. “Don’t worry!” you shout to the Kid, who has his hands over his ears.
When the rag doesn’t work, you try a couch pillow, and when that doesn’t work, you grab a kitchen chair and stand on it to take the battery out, but you can’t reach the alarm.
“What about that chair?” the Kid yells, pointing to the wingback. He is standing up now.
“I don’t think that’s any taller!”
“We could stack them!”
The Kid shrugs.
You heave the wingback to the middle of the room and lift the kitchen chair on top of it. You try to climb it, but it’s too unstable.
“Can you hold it?” you shout.
The Kid braces himself against the back of the chair and you try again.
You can barely reach the alarm, which, that much closer, is unbearably loud, and you are sweating, and weirdly frightened, and the air around you is only getting thicker, and you realize you never even dealt with what was burning in the first place, and the chair beneath you is shaking, and when you look down, you see the Kid grimacing, his face red in places and white in others, pressing against the chair with all the strength in his little arms, in his whole body, to keep you up.
“Hang in there, buddy!” you shout, and he nods at the backs of your knees, and after what feels like several minutes of trying to free the battery—your ears!—you finally whack and whack until the whole thing rips from the ceiling and crashes to the floor.
Silence rushes in.
You leap down from the stack and slap him five.
“Wow,” the Kid says, shaking out his arms. His eyes are watering from the noise. “That was badass.”
When the Boyfriend gets home, he is grateful, surprised. You sit around the table and give him your cards. You cut the end slice for the Boyfriend and layer on cream cheese thick as a book.
“Happy Father’s Day,” you say.
“This looks unreal,” the Boyfriend says.
“I made it myself!” the Kid says.
“Oh, bullshit,” you say.
Sometimes the Ex-Wife asks for a change to the schedule, which the Boyfriend grants inevitably and unconditionally, and which you only hear about after the fact. It’s your weekend off, but the Ex-Wife has a business trip and has to leave Sunday night.
“So I said I’d just get him on Saturday,” the Boyfriend says.
“What the fuck?” you say. “Why’d you give her the whole weekend?”
“I just thought it’d be easier.”
“Why are you so jacked up?”
“You’re always bending over for her.”
“Relax,” he says. “She’s taking him next week instead.”
You gasp. “But that’s a weekday.”
“That’s not a fair trade!”
“Fair trade.” He shakes his head. “I don’t know,” he says. “It’s like you don’t even want him around.”
“No,” you say. “But if I had a choice? If I had a choice to be just with you, would I pick it? Sure. Wouldn’t anybody?”
The Boyfriend winces. “But it’s not just me,” he says. He looks suddenly haunted. “We’re a package deal.”
On the Saturday night the Boyfriend gave away, you put on Oldies and pour a bowl of cashews for everyone and a very strong drink for yourself, and you all play Sorry!, whose title move goes like this: upon drawing a Sorry! card, you may take a piece from your “Start” zone and swap it with someone already on the board, thus sending that player’s piece back to his own “Start.” If one player is on the board, the decision is made for you. If, however, two players are on the board—the Boyfriend, in this case, and the Kid—you must make a choice. This choice should be straightforward—you will sacrifice the player whose position is closest to your “Home.” But when you dispassionately remove the Kid’s piece and replace it with your own, his lip begins to quiver, and he cranks his fists into his eye sockets. When the Boyfriend pulls the same card, it’s clear he should sacrifice the Kid, but to control the damage you’ve done, he pretends to deliberate and, winking, sacrifices you instead, prompting the Kid to raise his head from the table and, his appetite whetted, grab a few cashews, which he pops jubilantly into his mouth. Although your ass is extremely chapped, you feign indifference, because you are an adult, obviously, and also because you can’t give him the satisfaction, and so you simply tell him to please consider chewing with his mouth closed. The Kid, meanwhile, having finally come upon a Sorry! card of his own—kissing the card several times and waving it in the air—sends your piece back to “Start,” not even placing it politely but tossing it at you with something worse than jubilance, even though sacrificing the Boyfriend would have benefited the Kid more, and the Boyfriend was already winning and should have been slowed down instead of pushed closer to a win, and you were already losing significantly, having had only one pathetic piece on the board, the one the Kid sent back. But the Boyfriend pulls another Sorry! card and—aware of your increasing agitation—sacrifices the Kid for the objective reason that the Kid’s position benefited the Boyfriend more, which, the Boyfriend explains, is how the game should work, and the Kid, enraged that his father favored you over him, spends the rest of the game taking every possible opportunity to obliterate his father, so engrossed in his vendetta that he does not notice that you are quietly winning, and then have won.
The Boyfriend grins. “Good game,” he says, and shakes your hand.
“Seconds!” the Kid says. He will not look at you. He grabs a card from the stack. “Dad, you and me!”
“There’s no seconds in Sorry!” you say, and rip the card from his hand so hard you’re afraid you’ll see blood. “Learn how to lose, dude.”
The Kid blinks at you, soggy eyed, then stomps to his room.
The Boyfriend is looking at you funny. “What?” you say.
He shakes his head. “You’re pretty hostile to him.”
“I’m not hostile.”
You fold up the board and tuck it into the box. You collect the pieces into a baggie and pinch it closed. You gather the cards, pat the edges of the stack smooth, and wrap it in a plastic band. The Boyfriend watches you in silence.
“You don’t love him,” he says, finally.
Love? Your heart begins to pound. Your heart is always pounding these days. You scratch at candle wax on the table with your fingernail, and then brush the shavings into your palm. “Well, no,” you say. “Not like you.”
The Boyfriend nods. “That’s hard for me.”
Your face grows hot. “What if I adopted some random nine-year-old and brought him home?” you say. “What if one day you found yourself staring down a big pair of buck teeth at dinner? Would you be in love immediately?”
He closes his eyes, as if your very words are too bright. “But he’s not random,” he says. “He’s mine.”
“But he’s random to me!”
He shakes his head, bewildered.
“I don’t think that’s my job,” you say.
“What is your job?”
“I don’t know,” you say. “To tolerate him. To be kind, to pack a lunch once in a while, to make sure he doesn’t become a rapist.”
He blinks at you.
“I like him,” you try again, as he pushes back from the table. “I enjoy him. Not all the time, but sometimes.”
“Tolerate,” he says, heading for the Kid’s room. “Listen to you.”
When the Kid is over, you try to stay out of the house altogether. You spend whole weekends at your sister’s or your parents’. You visit friends. Sometimes you just get fucked up at bars alone and flirt with ugly men. When you’re gone, the Boyfriend texts you pictures of the Kid because, you guess, he hopes you miss him, or wants you to miss him, or has convinced himself that when you are inevitably beset by a warm, bourbon glow at the sight of the Kid deep-throating a foot-long at the county fair, the Kid pointing triumphantly at a golf ball in a hole, the Kid freshly weed-whacked at Supercuts, you will realize you have missed him all along.
Each time a new one rolls in, you look away, stunned and blinking, as if you just got flashed.
One Saturday, the Boyfriend gets called into work, so you tell the Kid to put his swimsuit on. You are going to the beach. “Why?” he says. “It’s not even hot.”
“Autumn closing in, man. Remember Bob Seger?”
“Hustle,” you say, halving a glistening watermelon. “Pretend you’re late for baseball.”
You carry a chair and he drags a chair and you carry the cooler and he drags the bag and you set up camp at the edge of the wet sand. There are crickets. You play catch with a tennis ball for a while, but you hate catch and you’re sick of chasing down the balls you fumble, and after a while you drop into your chair and point to a boy digging a ditch by the water. “Go make friends,” you say.
You pull a Frisbee from the bag and hand it to him. “Ask him if he wants to play.”
“You do it.”
“I don’t need a friend.”
“Your call,” you say, and put your head back.
You listen to him fidget, sigh, adjust the arms of his chair, pull off its head cushion with a protracted scratch of Velcro, open the cooler and rummage through the food. When you open your eyes, he is looking at you. “What?” you say.
“Is there juice?”
“Did you pack any?”
“Ugh,” he says, and bangs his head against the chair.
You close your eyes again. “Try to meditate,” you say.
“Imagine your thoughts as taxis. When one comes, don’t get in it. Just let it drive away.”
“I don’t have any thoughts.”
“Then you’re ahead of the game.”
He is quiet for a minute.
“I’m bored,” he says.
“Where’s your book?”
“I think I forgot it.”
“Jesus Christ,” you say, through your teeth. You point to the boy. “Go.”
“I’ll just sit with you.”
“You don’t want to.”
“I do, too.” He pushes out his lips and makes the sideways peace sign of a gangsta. “Look at me,” he says, pointing back and forth between you two, his head bobbing as if to a beat, the Boyfriend’s old sunglasses low on his nose. “I’m balling.”
“Uhuh,” you say. “Go take your balling ass over there.”
“What if he says no?”
“Then I’ll kill him.”
At home, you collapse onto the couch next to the Boyfriend.
“I owe you one,” he says.
“How’d it go?” you say.
“Why don’t we ever play the lottery?” he says, patting his thighs so you can give him your feet.
“Because we’re stupid,” you say.
The Kid comes into the room, smelling of hand soap. “What would you do if you won the lottery?” you ask him.
The Kid thinks about this. “I’d get a Mustang.”
“What color?” you say.
“A hot blue Mustang,” you say. “That’s it?”
“Yeah,” the Kid says. He is watching the Boyfriend press his thumb against your insole, slowly. “And then I’d pay a scientist to make Mom and Dad never die.”
“Awww, buddy,” the Boyfriend says, patting the cushion beside him. He lifts your feet and slides closer to you, under your legs, all the way to your hips, to make room for the Kid. When the Kid sits, your feet are in his lap, but when you pull your legs in, it’s not comfortable—your knees are in your fucking mouth—so you start to get up.
“Stay,” the Boyfriend says, his hand tight on your foot.
“There’s no room.”
“Can I have one?” the Kid says.
“What?” the Boyfriend says.
“That,” he says.
The Kid nods.
The Boyfriend chuckles, shrugs. “Why not?” he says. He spreads his arms agreeably. “I’ll take any and all.” The Kid swings around, grinning, and sticks his feet in the Boyfriend’s lap, touching yours. You freeze, then watch with horror as the Boyfriend takes the Kid’s foot in his hand. “Who says men can’t multitask?” he says.
“That’s it,” you say, ripping your foot away, and storm from the room.
“Get up, buddy,” you hear the Boyfriend mutter to the Kid as you stomp into shoes, and then he is coming down the steps, barefoot, to your car, which you are already backing out of the driveway. “Denise!” he calls out.
But you don’t stop. You just tear down the street, watching him shrink in the rearview mirror, and wonder when you’ll leave him.
When you get home late, drunk, the two are in the living room, watching a movie. The Boyfriend jumps to his feet when you walk in the doorway. The Kid scrambles to hit pause. “Are you hungry?” the Boyfriend says, straightening his shirt.
You point to the Kid. “Why the hell is he still up?” you say. The Kid looks down at the remote.
“We waited dinner,” the Boyfriend says.
“I didn’t want you to.”
“Did you eat?”
His face brightens. “I made pasta.” He hustles into the kitchen, motioning for you to follow. You find the table set for three, napkins folded into crisp triangles under the forks, a bowl of spaghetti in the center. There are candles.
“It’s overcooked,” you say.
He frowns. “How can you tell?”
“It’s fucking white.”
The Kid has come in, too.
“He did the table,” the Boyfriend says. “I mean I lit the match, but he’s the one who thought of—”
“I’m going to bed,” you say, and close the bathroom door behind you.
When you get out of the shower, the Kid is alone at the table, eating. Candlelight flickers across his face. “Where’s your dad?” you say.
“He’s on the phone.”
“You guys have a romantic dinner?”
The Kid looks down, embarrassed.
“Do you want more?” you say.
You grab the bowl of pasta and dump the rest of it down the sink. The Kid sits up straight: he’s remembered something. “But thank you!” he says.
“Don’t talk with your mouth full.”
The Kid swallows. “So,” he says, formally. “How’s work?”
“Work?” You look at him funny.
“I don’t know,” you say. You grab a broom and start to sweep. “It’s work.”
The Kid nods.
“Move your feet,” you say. He raises his legs. “How’s school?” you say, finally.
He looks down at his plate. “It’s school,” he says.
“I don’t know,” he says. “Kelsey always talks to Timmy now.”
“Do you think I’m too short?” he says. “Timmy’s taller.”
“Nah. Mark Walberg’s only five-eight.”
“A hot actor. Al Pacino’s short, too.”
“If you’re done, take your plate,” you say. He pushes his chair back and grabs his dish with both hands.
“And they’re grown men,” you say, as he rinses the dish carefully, front and back. “That’s as tall as they’re going to get. You’re just a kid.”
The Kid puts the plate in the sink and sighs.
He studies the rack for a while, then sticks it in.
“It’s facing the wrong way.”
“The plate,” you say. “Flip it around.”
“Oh, oh,” he says, and fixes it.
“I might be taller than your dad,” you say.
“Hard to tell.” You sweep the dirt pile into the corner of the room, then lean the broom against the wall. “His posture sucks. He’s like an orangutan.”
The Kid laughs.
The Boyfriend comes into the kitchen. He tosses his cell phone on the table. “What are you guys laughing about?” he says.
“Who’s taller?” you say. “You or me?”
He scoffs. “Is that even a question?”
The Kid claps his hands. “Back to back!” he shouts.
You roll your eyes, then turn around and wait. You feel the warm press of the Boyfriend’s shoulders. “No cheating,” you say.
“Check his heels,” you say to the Kid.
“Dad,” the Kid says. “I can see that!”
“Don’t count his hair either,” you say. “It’s in his crazy phase. That’s an inch at least.”
“The term you’re looking for is wind-swept.”
“The windows are shut, Dad!” the Kid says.
“I can feel you straightening,” you say.
“So?” the Boyfriend says.
“This is normal.”
“Stand like an orangutan!” the Kid says.
“Yeah,” you say. “Stand like an orangutan.”
The Boyfriend pulls away. He looks back and forth between you and the Kid. “This thing is rigged,” he says.
“It is not!” the Kid says.
“Fine,” the Boyfriend says. He hunches over. “Like this?” He grunts and hoots—whoo, whoo, whoo, ahhhh, ahhh—drums his hands on his knees, on the chairs, the candles flickering, and then begins to chase you around the table, his arms low and swinging, grabbing at your ass, the Kid pressed against the wall, squealing with delight—“Denise!” he yells, laughing so hard a thread of snot spools out from his nose, “Watch out!”— silverware jangling, dirty napkins falling from the table like paper cranes—whoo, whoo, whoo, whooo, whoo—the broom crashing to the floor as he comes for you.