Andy is the easiest kid in the world. He’s always been like that. Even my pregnancy was easy. My friend Rachel was pregnant at the same time and she couldn’t stop throwing up, but I had a happy, healthy pregnancy.
And then when he was first born, he never cried (yes, Katie was a rude awakening). I remember he had this shock of black hair that even then reminded me of Blake. I remember Blake holding Andy in his arms in the hospital, as we exchanged happy but slightly panicked looks. Nobody tell this kid we don’t know what we’re doing, Blake joked nervously.
But Andy made it easy. Blake and I would look down at him sleeping peacefully in his bassinet with equally worried expressions on our faces. Do you think we should wake him up? Is he OK?
Andy was fine. He was always fine. He always ate any food you put in front of him, never argued when you asked him to do a chore, always brushed his teeth without argument (I swear, getting Katie to brush her teeth is going to be the death of me). You couldn’t ask for a better behaved kid.
At the same time, I worry about him. He’s quiet. And ever since Blake moved out, he’s been even more quiet. Sometimes I think he could go whole day without speaking and I might not even notice a change.
Tonight, I check on him in his room while he’s doing his homework. I find him typing something on the laptop I bought him last year. Actually, it was a gift from me and Blake on his 10th birthday. We somehow managed to go in on it together without murdering each other.
I watch him sitting at his desk, his dark eyes pinned on the computer screen. He looks so freaking much like Blake. He even started wearing glasses in the last year for distance like Blake does.
“What are you working on?” I ask him.
“An essay for social studies,” he says.
“The Civil War.”
“Oh? What about the Civil War?”
Andy’s eyes dart upward and to the side, which is an expression he always gets when he’s thinking. Blake has the same freaking expression. “Like, about the different causes of the war. Like, you know, slavery.”
“Interesting,” I lie. Sometimes I am just so happy to be done with school. Everything my kids have to do for school is so deliriously boring. “Did you finish your math homework?”
Andy nods at the red folder on his desk. “Yep. It’s inside.”
I pick up the folder and flip it open. Sure enough, his completed math assignment is inside. I would ask if he wants me to check it over for him, but I’m not sure if I can do these problems. He may have surpassed me mathematically in fourth grade. Of course, Andy’s always been a whiz at math. Yet another way he takes after his dad.
Under the math assignment, I see a flyer for some sort of class trip. I pull it out and read the big black letters. Apparently, there’s some sort of fun camping trip coming up for his class. Children bring their parents along and go on a hike followed by an overnight camping excursion.
“Hey,” I say, “what’s this?”
“Oh.” Andy glances at the flyer and then back at the computer screen. “It’s just this camping trip a bunch of my classmates are going on.”
“Do you want to go?”
“Well…” Andy lowers his eyes. “I know you hate that stuff. And Dad… can’t.”
Well, he’s right that I hate anything involving the wilderness. And he’s also right that I can’t even imagine how Blake would be able to manage something like this, although it would kill him to hear Andy talking this way.
“Hey, I’ve got an idea,” I say.
He lifts his eyes hopefully.
“What if Patrick goes with you on the trip?”
Andy frowns. “You think he would do that?”
“Sure!” I say with more confidence than I feel. One way or another, I’ll convince Patrick to do it. “He’d love to. It would be a great chance for the two of you to bond, since he’s going to be your new stepfather.”
“Yeah…” A tiny smile crawls across Andy‘s lips, which makes me realize how rarely I see him smile anymore. “I guess that would be OK.”
“Wonderful!” I clap my hands together. “I’ll go talk to him about it right now.”
I leave Andy‘s room and head down the hallway to our bedroom. On the way, I pass Katie coming out of the bathroom. She has a guilty look on her face. “Did you brush your teeth like I asked?” I say.
“Yes!” she cries. She punches one hand into each hip, the way I do when I’m angry. If Andy is a little version of Blake, Katie is a little version of me. In other words, I’m being punished for my past sins.
Katie watches me as I go into the bathroom and pull out her toothbrush. I run my fingers over the bristles. They do feel moist. I sniff the toothbrush. It does smell minty.
I can’t believe this is what my life has become. Sniffing toothbrushes.
“Open your mouth,” I instruct her.
Katie looks worried, but she obligingly opens her mouth. I take a sniff—garlic and tomato sauce. Aha!
“You didn’t brush!” I say triumphantly. “You just ran your toothbrush under the water.”
“No, I didn’t!”
“Katherine Marie Campbell,” I say. “I don’t want to hear any lies coming out of that mouth of yours.”
Katie looks like she’s going to argue further with me, but then she pouts and says, “Fine!” She marches back into the bathroom and restarts the process of (hopefully for real) brushing her teeth.
I don’t know why she’s so difficult about brushing her teeth. I wonder if she gives Blake a hard time about it too. He never mentioned it to me. Then again, we don’t exactly have a kind of relationship where we can chitchat about our daughter brushing her teeth. Frankly, I’d rather she not brush her teeth all weekend than have to go through a conversation with him about it.
I find Patrick in our bedroom, sitting on our bed with his laptop resting on his legs. The second I walk into the room, he snaps it shut and smiles up at me. “Coming to bed early?”
I climb into bed beside him, tucking my legs under me. “Not quite.”
Patrick reaches out and tucks a strand of my red hair behind one ear. Lately, I’ve been feeling somewhat self-conscious about the length of my hair. I used to love having long hair, but now it feels like wearing ripped jeans—I’m getting too old for my hairstyle, and something shorter might be more flattering.
“What’s up?” Patrick asks.
“So I’ve got a great idea.” I really need to sell this one. “Andy was asked to go on this hiking/camping trip with his class. And I thought maybe you could go with him. I think it will be a great way for the two of you to bond.”
“Ugh,” he says.
That wasn’t the response I was hoping for. I need to spin this. “Look,” I say, “it’s been a transition for the kids having you live here. And Andy is at a very delicate age, you know?”
“Mmm,” he says. “I know what you’re saying, but camping? I don’t know about that.”
“But Andy really wants to go,” I say. “And you know Blake can’t go with him.”
Mentioning Blake sure got his attention. “Yeah, it’s not the kid’s fault his dad is a loser.”
I bristle at his comment. I feel a sudden irrepressible urge to defend my ex-husband. Blake isn’t a loser. Considering everything that got thrown at him in the last several years, he’s bounced back remarkably well. But the last thing I want to do is antagonize Patrick when I’m trying to get him to do what I want him to do. “I think the two of you would have a lot of fun,” I say instead.
He cocks his head to the side, considering it. “It’s not going to cost me anything, right?”
It irks me when Patrick says stuff like that. When Blake and I were married, and even before we were married, it felt like all our money was communal. Everything went into joint accounts and we never kept track of who was contributing what. It was all one big pile of money. But after you’ve been through dividing your money once, you feel a little bit more protective of what’s yours. I want my own bank accounts.
But when that’s the case, you always have to be thinking about who’s going to pay for what.
“I’ll pay for the trip,” I say.
Finally, he smiles. “OK. I’ll do it. Hell, it’ll probably be fun. And Andy is a good kid. He deserves a good father figure.”
“Yeah,” I mumble.
I don’t say what I’m thinking, which is that the kids already have a good father figure. What I want them to see is that Patrick can step up as a stepfather.
“Dad, can you give me French braids?”
Katie gets the idea in her head randomly while we’re watching TV. I did, amazingly, convince her to watch a marathon of Get Smart episodes that randomly came on Nick at Night. I was so excited when I found out about it. It wasn’t easy to convince her though—my kids do not share my love of classic TV.
She really wanted to watch Frozen. Frozen is her absolute favorite movie, which we have watched, without exaggeration, 10 trillion times. I have not only memorized every word of “Let It Go” but I also know several of the other songs by heart. Like that one about wanting to build a snowman. When I found myself humming the soundtrack in the shower, I knew I had to put some distance between me and Frozen.
So I’m doubly excited we’re watching Get Smart instead of Frozen. And she seems to like it. I just wish Andy were watching with us too, but he’s getting a head start on his homework in my spare bedroom. It was hard to argue TV over homework.
“Now?” I say. “But you’re going to sleep in a couple of hours.”
It’s Friday night, and it’s my weekend with the kids. That means we get to spend the whole weekend hanging out. Katie has already made a list of the movies she wants to watch this weekend. (Part of my negotiations to watch Get Smart.) I’m going to have to think of an activity for the weekend that Andy would really like. One that I can do without it being a big production.
Maybe we’ll take the ferry out to see the Statue of Liberty. That will be fun. And I remember from the last time we did it, there weren’t any major accessibility issues. I think we just went in through the lower level boarding, and there was an elevator to get to the top deck.
Christ, I hate having to worry about this shit. Why can’t anything in my life be simple?
“I want braids, Dad,” Katie whines. “Please?”
A couple of months ago, Katie asked me for French braids, and of course, being a heterosexual male, I had no clue how to do it. So I looked up a YouTube video on French braids, and now I’m the world’s expert. Every single weekend, I have to braid Katie‘s hair.
“Do you make your mom do this?” I ask.
“No! You do it way better.”
I’m flattered. I think.
I pause the current episode of Get Smart while Katie runs to the bathroom to get the brush and hair ties. While she’s rummaging around in there, Andy comes out of the bedroom. My heart leaps at the side of him. Does he want to join us?
“Hey!” I say. “Do you want to watch Get Smart with us?”
Andy makes a face. “Not really.”
“Why not? It’s about a secret agent, and it’s really funny. Would you believe… Get Smart was voted the best TV show of all time?”
That’s a joke from the show. Max Smart is always saying “would you believe…” then he makes some ridiculous statement. Like that Get Smart was voted best TV show of all time.
Andy looks skeptical. “It doesn’t sound very good.”
“Well, we can watch something else if you want.” I was excited to get Katie to watch Get Smart, but if it means Andy will stay out here with us, I’m willing to watch anything. “What do you like?”
I search my brain, trying to think of the shows he likes. I can name all of Katie’s favorite TV shows. I can probably name 20 of them. But somehow, I can’t think of anything Andy likes.
“I just need help with my math homework,” he says.
“Of course!” I’m thrilled he asked me. Math. That’s one thing I’m great at. Even better than oral sex, if that’s possible, and it’s equally practical. “Math is a lot of fun, isn’t it? There’s nothing better than math.”
He gives me that strange look again. “You’re weird, Dad.”
He plops down next to me on the sofa and shoves his folder onto my lap. They’re doing addition with decimals, and he hadn’t been lining up the decimals properly. I spend a minute showing him how to do it, and that’s all it takes. Andy has always been really quick with math. Like me.
I open the folder to put the worksheet back inside, but then I see a flyer sticking out of one of the pockets. It’s some sort of trip for the kids. A hiking/camping trip. It looks like it’s meant for parents to go on with the kids.
I get a jab in my chest. It sounds like this is a fun trip any kid would want to go on. But speaking of things that are not wheelchair accessible, there’s no way I would be able to do something like this. It would take so much planning, and I’d wind up making things a drag for everybody else just to accommodate myself.
Andy sees me looking at the form. “It’s OK, Dad. You don’t have to go.”
I flinch. I don’t want him to think I don’t want to go. I do. More than anything. “Maybe I can figure out a way to—”
“Patrick is taking me.”
I feel like somebody just sucker punched me. “He is?”
Andy nods uncertainly. “Yeah. It was Mom’s idea.”
The first father-son trip Andy has been invited on, and fucking Patrick is taking him. I can’t believe this. What the hell?
Katie shows up with a brush in one hand and a bunch of multicolored hair bands in the other. (Yes, I now have multicolored hair bands in my bathroom.) She beams at me. “I’m ready for my French braids, Daddy!”
“Okay,” I mumble. “Just a second.”
And then before I can think about whether it’s a good idea or not, I pick up the phone and punch in Audrey’s number.
She picks up after only one ring. I shouldn’t be surprised, considering I never ever call her when the kids are over. She probably thinks they must be in the hospital. “Blake? Is everything OK?”
“Patrick is taking Andy on his class trip?” I blurt out.
There’s a long pause on the other line. “Yes…”
I realize now it was an overreaction to call her. I wish I hadn’t done it. Yet for some reason, I push on.
“So you don’t see anything wrong with that at all?” I almost spit out.
“It’s a hiking trip. In the woods.”
“So you assume that’s off the table for me.” To be fair, I assumed the same thing. But there’s probably a way. Somehow. Maybe.
“No,” she says quietly. “Andy assumed it. He assumed he wasn’t going on the trip. I thought it would be good for him to go with Patrick.”
I glance over at my son, who is looking at me with a furrowed brow. I clear my throat. “Fine. Whatever.”
There’s another long pause on the other line. “Also, you know Katie’s class play is on Wednesday afternoon, right?”
“Right,” I mumble. It’s going to be interesting acrobatics to figure out how to avoid Audrey in that tiny auditorium. “Is Patrick coming with you?”
“No,” she says quietly. “I’m just going to take an Uber over from the office.”
“Great.” There’s no expression in my voice. “I guess I’ll see you there.” But not if I can help it.
As I hang up the phone and click the TV back on, Katie climbs onto the sofa beside me. She stretches a hot pink hair band around her wrist. “Dad?” she says.
She stretches out the hair band then lets it snap her in the wrist. “Why do you hate Mom so much?”
I look up at her in surprise. “I don’t…”
“Yes, you do!” Katie insists. “You always yell at her. And whenever Mom has to call you, she always gets really nervous.”
Is that true? I look over at Andy for confirmation. He looks away and shrugs.
Great. I’m a fucking monster.
Katie wrinkles her nose. “Why did you and mom have babies together if you hate each other?”
“They used to be married, stupid,” Andy says. “They didn’t always hate each other.”
Katie gasps. “Dad, Andy called me stupid!”
I suck in a breath. “Andy, tell your sister you’re sorry.”
He drops his eyes. “Sorry, Katie.”
I look between my two kids, who are watching me intently. “Listen,” I say. “I… I don’t hate your mom. At all. It’s, um… complicated. But…” I rub the back of my neck. “From now on, I’m going to try to be nicer to her. OK?”
Katie nods, unconcerned. Andy still has his brow furrowed, but he nods too. He probably doesn’t believe me. He’s just barely old enough to remember how bad it got between me and Audrey before I left.
But I intend to make good on my promise. I do Katie‘s hair in two perfect French braids, and as soon as I’m done, I reach for my phone again. But this time I shoot off a text message to Audrey:
Do you want a ride to Katie’s play?
Those three dots appear on the screen, indicating she’s writing something back. It goes on for quite a long time, and I’m beginning to wonder what the hell she’s going to say. Finally, her response comes: No thanks.
Unsurprising. I wouldn’t want to ride over with me either after the way I’ve been acting. I quickly type back: I promise I won’t yell at you.
The three dots appear again. They flicker for at least a minute. What the hell is she writing that’s taking so long? Before her response comes, I add: I get the really good parking spots, remember?
Three dots again. Fucking finally her response appears on the screen:
I’m not sure how it took her two minutes to type in two letters. But I’m glad she agreed. Well, I’m mostly glad. It’s going to be painful as hell to spend time with her, but I can’t keep acting this way around her. We’ve got two kids together, and we need to be civil. We should be friends. For Katie and Andy.
For the sake of my kids, I’m going to suck it up and put the past behind me.
To be continued....