How the Grinch Stole My Heart
I close my eyes, trying to shut out the sound of a ball hitting the wall just outside my apartment. It’s the second time in two days. The second goddamn time.
I feel a seedling of a headache starting in my left temple. I open my eyes and stare at the computer screen in front of me, filled with code. If I get a migraine, there’s no way I’ll be able to get any work done. I’ll be lucky if I can get out of bed.
Thump. Thump. Thump.
I grit my teeth. I know it’s a lot to expect absolute silence at three o’clock in the afternoon on a Sunday, but there’s something about that sound that gets me. The fact that it’s not quite rhythmic. The way sometimes there’s a gap in the thumps and I think it’s finally stopped, but nope, there it is again.
I know who’s doing it. It’s that kid. That goddamn kid. I don’t know his name, but his family moved here a couple of months ago, and ever since winter hit for real, he’s been playing out in the hall with his rubber ball. He throws it against the wall as hard as he can, then he catches it. You’d think he’d get bored of it eventually, but he never does. He never. Fucking. Does.
I don’t want to be the asshole who yells at a little kid for tossing a ball around in the hallway. I don’t want to be that guy. Nobody likes that guy. Remember Dennis the Menace and his grouchy old neighbor, Mr. Wilson? Dennis the Menace was always messing up Mr. Wilson’s lawn or knocking down half his house or pulling down his pants to reveal polka dot boxers, but somehow Dennis was still the hero. Did anyone root for Mr. Wilson? No, nobody did.
I don’t want to be Mr. Wilson. I don’t. I’m just really sick of the sound of that goddamn ball. I’m not going to be able to pay my rent if the kid keeps it up.
To hell with it. I’m going to say something. Maybe the kid can go throw a ball on the floor above or below. Or anywhere else besides right outside my fucking door.
I take a breath, steeling myself for the effort it will take to stand up. I reach with my left hand for the forearm crutch I always keep leaning against my desk when I work. I lace my left arm through the metal loops, then slowly haul myself to my feet like I have hundreds of times before. I have a false start, where it seems like I’ll fall right back into my chair, but I don’t.
I’ve gotten good at this over the last several years. I barely remember a time when standing up from a chair didn’t involve any effort at all. It feels like that was a whole other life.
I guess it sort of was.
I limp in the direction of the door. I keep the path from my desk to the door cleared of dirty clothes, rugs, or other paraphernalia that can and will trip me up. It’s about twenty feet from the desk to the door, but it takes me a good minute to traverse. My left leg does fine, but my right drags along behind me like dead weight, even with the plastic brace I’ve got supporting my ankle. It goes without saying I don’t go on any long hikes these days.
I get the door open just as the kid is hurling his rubber ball at the wall with an impressive overhand for a kid his size. I don’t know how old he is, because I don’t have much familiarity with children. He’s somewhere between kindergarten and adulthood. Seven? Eight? Something like that. My clues are he’s two heads shorter than me and has no visible facial hair.
He catches the ball, cupping it between his hands. A jab of jealousy hits me right in my rib cage. I can’t do that anymore. Throwing. Catching. I throw worse than a little girl with my left, and my right… well, it’s obvious I’m not throwing with that one anymore. I’m not doing anything with that one these days. Not that I was any Babe Ruth before, but I could toss a ball around without humiliating myself. I used to sometimes pitch on my company’s softball team, and could always be counted on to strike a few guys out.
“Hey!” I say.
The kid turns and looks at me, startled. He’s a cute kid—big brown eyes, messy brown hair, and a runny nose. I wonder if I’d stayed with Taylor, if we’d have a kid of our own by now. Probably we would. Taylor wanted three and I wanted two. We used to argue about it.
I clear my throat, not wanting to come off as too harsh. I don’t want to be Mr. Wilson. “Hey,” I start again. “Listen, when you throw the ball against the wall, it’s too loud…”
The kid is staring at me. Actually, he’s staring at my right arm. It’s not a big shock, since everyone stares at my right arm. Even adults stare, but at least they look away when they notice me noticing. But this kid couldn’t care less that I’ve caught him staring at me.
And this is why I get my groceries delivered. This is why I work from home. This is why my skin is embarrassingly pale because I only venture out of my apartment once a week, at most.
I never wanted to become one of those loser computer geeks who’s holed up in an apartment and loses all contact with the outside world. But to be fair, nobody wants that. It just… happens.
“My mom said I could,” the kid finally says.
“Right,” I say, “but you’re throwing it outside my door, and it’s making it really hard for me to concentrate on my work.”
The kid’s jaw juts out. “My mom said I could.”
“Listen.” I hear any trace of niceness dissolving from my voice. My resolution not to be an asshole is dissolving. “You can’t throw the ball here. Go to another floor or something.”
“My mom says I can’t leave the floor.”
My temple throbs. If that ball didn’t give me a migraine, this conversation will do it. “So go to the other end of the hallway. Around the corner.”
He shakes his head. “More room here.”
A muscle twitches in my right leg, and I tighten my grip on my forearm crutch. Even standing in one place is a lot of effort for me. “Look,” I say, “you can’t throw your ball here. You’re not allowed.”
“My mom says I can,” he insists again.
“Your mom is wrong.” I try to look him in the eyes, but his are focused like a laser beam on my right arm. I want to adjust my arm so it doesn’t look quite so bad, but I don’t dare release my crutch. “You can’t play with your ball in the hallway. Got it?”
“And if I hear you doing it again,” I say, “I’m calling the building management. Cappish?”
The kid blinks at me. “Ca-what?”
To hell with it. Everyone already thinks I’m a grumpy asshole. May as well own it. “Look,” I say, “throw the ball again and I’m taking it.”
His eyes widen. “You can’t do that!”
“I sure can,” I say. “Anything that lands right outside my apartment is my property. And that includes your ball.”
The kid clutches the ball to his chest. His lower lip trembles. Shit. I didn’t make him cry, did I?
Christ, I didn’t want to make him cry. Maybe I’m a grumpy asshole, but I’m not a monster.
Not yet, anyway. Give me a few years of living here all alone, with no human contact. That’s the direction I’m headed.
But thankfully, he doesn’t cry. Instead, he sticks out his right hand, and shoots his middle finger up in the air.
Holy shit, that little kid just flipped me off!
I don’t even have a chance to react before he races away. That’s probably a good thing, since I’m not sure what I would have done. I definitely couldn’t reciprocate. You can’t give a grade schooler the finger. I’m sure if I had, some neighbor would have opened their door at that exact second. And then I’d be…
Well, I’m not sure what the punishment is for flipping off a child. But it wouldn’t be great. It’s not like I’ve got any friends in the building who would stick up for me. Aside from Fanny, but she’d be horrified too.
I have a bad feeling this isn’t over.
I’m shaking with anger.
I thought that was an expression people use, but in this case, it isn’t. I am literally shaking as I stare at the email on my phone. I am so pissed off right now at my ex-husband.
You would think the fact that Greg left me for his hygienist would give me the moral high ground forever. Yes, my husband the dentist left me for his hygienist. It was the biggest cliché ever. All my friends warned me not to let Greg hire a hygienist who was too attractive, but seriously, it’s not like I had any input in the matter. It’s not like my husband ran all his hires by me. By the time I laid eyes on Dina and was horrified by how young and pretty she was, she was already on the payroll. You can’t fire someone for being attractive—that would be an HR mess.
And yes, she’s younger than me. Ten years younger than me. Speaking of clichés.
Worst of all, because I’m apparently a masochist, I stalk her Facebook page, which is not set to private. She and Greg have traveled more in the year since he and I separated than we traveled during the entire ten years of our marriage. Why do I look at photos of Dina in a bikini in Bermuda, glaring at her perfect tummy that has clearly never held a full term fetus inside it? Why do I do that to myself? Her last Facebook update was: I love having a tan in December!
And now I get this gem from Greg in my inbox:
I was very disappointed to learn from Henry that you took him to see another dentist to have his teeth cleaned last week. Clearly, since his father is a dentist, it doesn’t make sense you should take him elsewhere. Dina is taking it personally that you don’t trust her to clean our son’s teeth properly, and she is quite hurt. Despite whatever personal grudge you have, Dina is an excellent hygienist and professional at all times. I expect in the future that you will bring Henry here for his next cleaning.
P.S. I believe you have my DVD of Blazing Saddles, and I would like you to return it when I pick Henry up next weekend.
First of all, let’s just get this out of the way: I do not have Greg’s copy of Blazing Saddles. I don’t even like that movie. And even if I did, I don’t even own a DVD player! Greg took ours when he moved out, and I never bothered to replace it. So the last thing I want is a stupid DVD for a movie I don’t even like that I wouldn’t even be able to play.
Okay, now let’s address the bigger issue:
I do not want to set foot in Greg’s dental offices ever again. I do not want Dina’s bubble gum pink fingernails in my son’s mouth. And yes, maybe I was being petty by taking Henry to another dentist when his very own father is a dentist, but when I thought of walking up the metal staircase to the dental office that Greg and I looked at together all those years ago, I just… couldn’t.
And Dr. Chambers is a good dentist. He has a whole treasure chest in the back that Henry got to rifle through for being well-behaved during his cleaning. So.
I chew on my thumbnail, which is this awful bad habit I have left over from my childhood. I do it whenever I’m angry or nervous or even bored. Every time I do it, I half expect to hear my mom snap at me, Noelle, stop chewing on your thumb! It drove Greg crazy too. I’d nearly managed to stop, but with the separation and then the divorce, I fell off the wagon. My stomach is probably filled with chunks of my thumbnail.
My fingers hover over the keypad on my phone’s screen, itching to type a scathing reply. I have the moral high ground after all.
But maybe I shouldn’t. I saw a therapist briefly after my separation, back when I could afford the copays, and she told me I needed to let go of my anger. Because if I don’t, I’m going to end up on blood pressure medications. Medications. Plural.
Before I can decide either way, the door to our apartment swings open. Henry stomps his way in, his little feet thumping loudly against the carpeted floor with each step. He throws himself against the sofa next to me, then starts tossing his rubber ball up in the air.
I cringe. He got that ball at a birthday party a month ago, and during that time, I’ve come to loathe it. It’s already broken two picture frames and toppled a small potted plant. It’s knocked over countless glasses of water or milk. Last night when I was trying to do our nightly chapter of Nate the Great so Henry doesn’t fall behind again in class, he took out the ball and started tossing it in the air while we were reading.
I want to confiscate the ball, but I can’t make myself do it. The divorce has been hard on Henry, and things aren’t better now that he’s cooped up in this small apartment every evening thanks to the growing cold.
The cold is a major issue. It wouldn’t be so bad if Henry could do basketball on weekends like last year, but Greg has refused to take him, saying it disrupts their weekend plans—so he’s doing zero sports right now. When I sat down with Henry’s teacher during the parent-teacher conference last week and expressed my concern that it seemed like my son couldn’t sit still lately and could it be a sign of attention deficit disorder, she said, “All the boys get restless when the weather changes and they can’t play outside as much. Imagine little wind-up toy that is all wound up, then released in a tiny little space. It would be going everywhere, bouncing against all the walls constantly, wouldn’t it?”
A wind-up toy is a perfect analogy for Henry’s behavior lately.
So I’ve reluctantly allowed him to keep the ball. But after a near-miss with our television set yesterday, I told him he’s only allowed to play with it in the hallway, where nothing can be shattered.
“Henry,” I say carefully, “didn’t I say you could only play with the ball in the hallway?”
“Uh huh.” He tosses the ball up in the air. “But this guy said I can’t.”
This guy said I can’t. Getting a story out of an eight-year-old can be a challenge.
“What guy?” I ask.
“This weird old guy,” he says.
“Like… the super? Luis?”
Henry just barely catches the ball before it smashes into the vase on our end-table. “No, he lives here. In 5B.”
“Oh.” We moved out of our old apartment only two months ago, so I don’t know many of our neighbors yet. The old place had too many memories. Also, too many zeroes in the rent. Not that this place is cheap—everything in Manhattan is outright ridiculous. But I didn’t want to pull Henry out of his school and away from his friends on top of everything. So we got a one-bedroom and he sleeps on a cot in the living room. “What did the old man say to you?”
“He told me I can’t play with my ball in the hall,” Henry says.
I narrow my eyes at him. “Were you throwing it against his door? Because I told you that you’re only allowed to throw it against the floor or up in the air.”
“I wasn’t throwing it against his door!” he insists. When I give him a look, he says, “I swear, Mom! I was being quiet.”
I believe Henry. I’ve never known him to lie before.
“And,” he goes on, “the man said if he saw me doing it again, he’d take it away.”
My eyes fly open. “He said he’d take it?”
He nods solemnly. “Yeah, but I don’t think he really could. He’s got a cane, and I bet I could run away with the ball before he could get it.”
“That’s not the point, Henry.” My right hand balls into a fist. Let go of my anger—yeah, right. How could I not be angry? If this guy doesn’t like my kid innocently tossing a ball around in the hallway, then he should take it up with me. Not threaten an eight-year-old child. What is wrong with him? “He has no right to take your ball away!”
He has no right. And I should march over to 5B and tell this old man what’s what!
I mean, what’s the worst that could happen? He sprays me with Ben Gay?
“He didn’t take it,” Henry explains patiently. He holds up the blue rubber ball. “It’s right here. See, Mom?”
“Yes, but—” I start to say, but at that moment, Henry throws the ball, and naturally, it goes completely out of control. I flinch as it barely misses my face, zips past my ear, slams into our bookcase, and knocks over three picture frames in one incredible shot. The sound of glass shattering echoes through our small apartment.
Apparently, I will not be going over to confront Mr. 5B. I will be cleaning up broken glass shards from the floor.
“Oops,” Henry says.
“Go to your room,” I mumble. “Now.”
Nobody ever said being a single mom was easy.
To be continued.....