A/N: This is just another idea.
I can't help but stare at the child as he clings loosely to his mother's hand, unaware of my gaze as his own eyes take stock of my small kitchen, a gently worn beige teddy bear held tightly in his other arm. My child, I remind myself, still in shock about the three-sixty degree turn that my life is about to take, at the way that I just can't seem to take my eyes off of him for even the shortest moment to focus my attention on what his mother, my ex-girlfriend is saying to me, her voice droning on and on in the background of chaos that is my thoughts. Five years old, I marvel, noting the way that his short little body has lost the baby fat of infant and toddlerhood and is beginning to develop more muscle to help him keep up during the hours spent outside on the playground at school and swimming in the swimming pool and at the beach. Does he even like the beach, I wonder, trying to avoid having to look directly into her rich brown, dark, almost black eyes. I fell in love with those eyes, made love while staring into those eyes as they burned with passion, watched them sparkle with laughter and indignation, and apparently someone else did too judging from the way that there's a fucking rock on her hand now. Oh, I wanted to slap her when she confessed, and then I wanted to go out and shoot the motherfucker who took her from me, but she was crying so hard from having to tell me the truth that all I could feel was the hurt. It washed and broke over me in waves, and in that moment all that I wanted was for her to say that it was all over between them, but obviously that didn't happen.
Instead, she went off and got married to the son of a bitch. I didn't hear from her for five years, have had a few good relationships since then, woke up this morning and had pancakes drenched in syrup with crispy bacon on the side for breakfast and a glass of chocolate milk, went for a morning run to feel less like a fat ass, called my mom, and then when I get off of the phone to answer the doorbell, guess who's standing on my front porch, and with a kid to boot!
"How could you not tell me about this before now?" My gaze narrows on hers, causing the child to glance warily in my direction, then upwards into his mother's anxious eyes flashing with uncertainty, her fingers unconsciously pulling him closer. I'm stunned to find my own midnight eyes watching me intently from beneath a thick set of strawberry blond locks as he snuggles deeper into Emma's side, giving me another quick peek before he turns away from us, nuzzling his head against his bear's. She bites her bottom lip, recognizing both from my face and my icy tone the anger that had beset her that day when I plainly told her to pack her bags and go if she wanted to so badly, but that I'd still love her regardless, even though it hurt like being kicked in the balls then. I waited for her to ask me to beg her to stay the way that they do in old chick flicks, and my lips were almost ready to say the words until I remembered that she didn't love me like that anymore, and I wasn't going to beg her to stay while she was thinking about this other imbecile fucking her with his little dick that's probably microscopic. I got over her, and now this…
"I didn't think that you wanted to see me anymore," she replies quietly, drawing in a deep breath before meeting my hardened gaze again, twisting the strap of a forest green Tigger the Tiger duffel bag nervously in her other hand. The years have added a few subtle wrinkles to her face, putting slight bags under her eyes and giving her a few extra gray hairs in her shimmering mane of strawberry blond hair, but my stomach still flutters a tad when she looks at me, and I curse myself for letting my eyes appreciate her curves for old time's sake. I remember holding her hips the night that this child was most likely conceived, thinking that my hands fit perfectly around her long waist that she was made for me but then she started to leave me. Not physically yet, but little by little it happened; she distanced herself from me, didn't return my phone calls or texts, then whenever I asked her about what was going on she'd either pull away or get so upset that I'd get pissed off and walk away, deciding that she'd tell me when she was ready, but it killed me not knowing what was wrong. Her eyes were no longer sparkling at me; rather they were shuttered and cool, a guardedness lurking there where previously there was bountiful love and wonder. Even her kisses after that night were different, cooler and somehow still pleasant, like kissing a friend instead of a girlfriend: they still held some measure of love and respect, but I could definitely tell the difference between them and the sensuous way that we'd explored each other's mouths previously. "I thought that you didn't want anything to do with me." You, yes, Frank, fuck no.
"That's irrelevant in this situation;" I object coldly, fighting to maintain my composure in front of our son, glaring at her while Emma merely nods remorsefully. "Having a baby in the middle makes this bigger than both of us. I had a right to know about the fact that I have a son, but instead you kept him from me like a dirty little secret while you ran off with the preacher's son to play house. Am I dead now, huh? Is that what's happened to me?" I'm seething, my hands balled into fists as my thoughts are consumed with all of her lies, all of the times that she could've called to tell me about being pregnant, written a letter, taken the subway, but her own needs and wants became more important. I could've been there for her and she deprived me of that, well no fucking more of it. Damn, I was an idiot.
"Of course not," she cries, beginning to tremble all over as she watches me quiver like a smoking volcano with the force of my anger. The child's gaze is suddenly on me again, riveted to my mouth as a string of vehement curse words spews forth from my lips like vomit, his eyes widening in what I'd guess to be shock. His eyes follow me to the metal double-sink located at the end of my L-shaped eatery, observing my hand as it pumps soap into my palm. I can feel those eyes scanning my profile as I lather myself up to my forearms in white shiny bubbles before plunging them into some scalding hot water, something about the usual monotony of hand-washing easing some of the pressure that I feel building in my chest.
"Damn you, Emma," I whisper loudly, turning back towards the pair without even bothering to dry my hands, walking towards her with long, purposeful strides until I'm close enough to them that I'm able to see more little pieces of me, of her inside the face that stares back at me; my angular facial structure and darkly thin lips that look ready to curl back into a snarl at any moment, but Emma is there too, in more subtle places like his large ears and his long eyelashes. For just a moment my heart stops as I gaze into his half-closed eyes, realizing that I don't even know my own son's name, that it's another little tidbit of information that his mother has kept from me all this time. What am I supposed to say, I wonder. 'Hi Kid, I'm your dad'? 'Hey, your mom used to be a good friend of mine back in the day, so now I guess she thought that we needed to become friends'? 'The reason why you and I look so much alike is because I accidentally knocked your mom up at a cocktail party when I was twenty-one'? Obviously that last one isn't going to do it, but this little guy is just staring at me like I'm dressed in a pink, floppy-eared Easter bunny costume, tightening his grip on Emma's hand the way that small children do when they're unsure about someone, raking the fingers of his other hand through the stuffed bear's fur before latching onto a good clump with his fist. She nudges him closer to me, far closer than either of is comfortable with yet as I squat on the balls of my feet to be at eye-level with him, my Adidas making a horrible squeaking sound against the linoleum floor that seems to ring in my ears long after it's passed.
"Hi," I begin, swallowing my nervousness and meeting those frigid blues head on, getting braver as I cautiously hold out my hand for him to shake. Eyeing it suspiciously, he looks upwards towards his mother, probably silently asking her why this strange man is being such a creep.
"Go ahead, Morgan; this is Robert Sweetheart, your daddy." Emma stares at me out of the corner of her eye as we shake hands, nodding her approval and smiling a plastic smile at Morgan when we've finished.
"Are you really my daddy?" Morgan blurts out, studying my face while Emma looks on, clearly horrified that he'd even question it, her eyes flashing with embarrassment.
"Morgan!" she gasps, but he ignores her, putting me in the hot seat and rooting me in place with his demanding stare. The awkwardness disappears for a brief minute as I study him in return, taking in his pursed lips and the sharpness of the blue in his eyes, my eyes, filled with a guardedness that mingles with a child's innate curiosity as he waits for my answer.
Nodding at him, I'm finally able to get my mouth muscles reconnected to my brain. "Yes, I am."
"How come you don't live with mama anymore? Why is that other man calling all the time? Why aren't you there, Daddy?" Morgan's voice rises with agitation as he fires his questions at me, each one harder to answer than the last, making the moment when he first calls me 'Daddy' bittersweet. You're the one who wanted to make this difficult, Emma, I think pointedly, glancing up at her pleading expression as she nibbles her bottom lip. I used to think that she looked adorable whenever she did that, and part of me still does, but there's a bigger part of me that wants to scream and stomp my feet like a child, to demand answers from her in the same way that Morgan is demanding them from me. You deal with it. Morgan turns towards her, his eyes two big question marks, innocently watching his mother waver with uncertainty as she undoubtedly scrambles to provide him with some bullshit story about me.
"Why, Mama? Why did you leave Daddy? Don't you love him anymore?" His mouth draws into a frown, and even from behind I can sense disaster coming as he opens his mouth to speak.
"Answer me, Mama!" he screeches up at her, his bottom lip trembling with the threat of oncoming tears. His little hands are balled into tight fists as he throws his bear down in disgust, or perhaps in an act of defiance, as she'd probably bought it for him as a newborn the way that most new mothers do. "Answer me!" he commands, jumping up and down on the balls of his feet, narrowing his eyes at her.
"Answer him for fuck's sake, Emma!" I yell, throwing etiquette to the wind as she remains mute, staring at our son as if he's a monkey in a zoo, like she's afraid to touch him, even to comfort him. That sickens me; here your son is after having been thrown into this fucked up situation without any warning, any padding, and you wonder why he acts like that? He's probably confused as fuck right now, and you can't even love him enough to try and help him understand? You'd better come up with a bestseller, real fucking fast, before I tell him every dirty detail of your sordid affair with Frank Hollingsworth.
As if she hears my unspoken threat, Emma wraps Morgan in a loving hug, gently rubbing his back to rid his muscles of their previous tension. Her touch seems to take the edge off of his anger if it doesn't succeed in deterring the path of his dangerous interrogations, and he wraps his arms around her neck, looking into the living room next door while she spouts off a list of "reassurances", although to me the words sound forced and fake, but that may just be because she once said them to me and look at her now, married to some other guy with three cherry red Ferraris, not that I've been out to their lovenest or anything, but a guy can hear things can't he?
"I love you, Morgan, you know that, right Honey?" She pries his reluctant arms from around her neck, gazing deep into his glassy eyes as if she can make him understand by sheer force of will. Morgan nods, fingering the black nylon cord around her neck, his gaze glued to the purple-red of the Russian amethyst heart that I know he sees on the end. I bought it for Emma on a trip to Africa, does he know that? Does he know that I would've been there for his mother had I known what was going on at the time, or does he see me as someone who didn't care enough to stay? Why is Emma still wearing that anyway? Snap out of it Robert, old buddy! Focus! "I love you, so much, Sweetheart." She puts her arms around him for another hug, pulling him closer now despite pulling away a few minutes ago, holding him against her chest and breathing deeply through her nose and out of her mouth. My gaze flicks towards her lips with the reflex, rewarded with the sight of rich, crimson lipstick, and for a moment I fantasize about ruining the carefully applied splash of color against her lightly tanned skin, pressing my lips against the warmth of hers, us moving our lips lovingly against each other, drawing circles on her pelvis with my fingertips blah, blah, blah…I still want to scream at her regardless. Thankfully though, Emma is too preoccupied with Morgan to notice my short attention span.
Morgan's voice brings me out of my haze, reminding me of reality, of how I haven't thought about Emma "that way" in a few years. But here she is, just as beautiful…fuck, I need an aspirin. Something. "Mama," he pulls away, staring anxiously into his mother's face as a few tears begin to trickle out of her eyes; Emma hurries to swipe them away, giving our son a watery smile and laughing, although it's very brittle, wrung out of her throat with everything that she has to make sure that he doesn't see her break right in half. "Mama, why are you crying?" Morgan asks quietly, his frown deepening. She laughs, a little stronger this time, patting his shoulder and glancing regretfully down at their feet before returning her eyes to his face.
"It's nothing, Baby," she answers gently, patting his cheek the way that a grandmother or an aunt would. "I'm just going to miss you." The child's frown doesn't dissipate in the slightest, his bottom lip curling inwards as confusion darkens his eyes.
"But I'm right here, Mama," he answers in a strangled voice, obviously doing his best not to let the tears that are undoubtedly burning the backs of his eyes fall, turning to glance in my direction as I lean with my hip against the wooden countertop, feet crossed at the ankles, trying and failing not to appear too obvious in my eavesdropping. Okay, so I'm not exactly "trying", per say, but I'm not about to leave them alone together anymore; this woman deprived me of the first five years of my son's life, and judging by the way that the duffel bag by her thigh is stuffed to bursting, and the emotional scene taking place right now, whatever this is, it is not going to be just an overnight kind of deal. Leaning away from the counter I meet his swimming eyes with mine, willing him to calm himself down, the look of fear in his blue orbs almost more than I'm able to bear. "I'm not gone for forever, just for a little while, remember? You said so. You promised…" he looks back at me, his gaze desperate, begging me to say something, to do anything to stop the impending separation. When I remain silent, his head whips back around to face Emma, fierceness blazing in his eyes. "I don't want to stay here, I want to go home." he tells her loudly, so there's no mistaking it, no room for misinterpretation on my part, no way to stop the arrow from piercing its target and rendering me speechless from the way that it tears at me and makes me bleed.
"This is home now, Morgan." Emma replies flatly, the lines in her face suddenly seeming more apparent. There's no emotion in her voice anymore, no sorrow, no regret for the way that she's breaking him into tiny little pieces, bit by bit. I want to slap her, the only thing keeping me from doing so being Morgan, who throws himself into her arms, sobbing harder, louder than I've ever heard any child sob before.
"No, no, no Mama, no," his pleas are muffled by her stark white, ruffled vest, interrupted only by more sobbing, his hands fisting the material harshly in both hands, trying desperately to hold onto her. "I don't wanna stay here! I wanna go home! Please let me come home, Mama! Please!" She rocks him back and forth, awkwardly patting his head the way that a person might do with an overexcited dog, but Morgan doesn't calm down that we were hoping he would, merely sniffling and finally blowing his nose into her vest. Wordlessly, I hand her a napkin from the table for her to clean them off with, which she accepts gratefully, gently peeling him off of her to clean his splotchy and red face, and to help him blow his nose again, where a huge glob of snot is sliding perilously close to Morgan's mouth. I give her a warm, damp washcloth too to clean the tearstains from his cheeks. She gives me a small smile of thanks, taking Morgan's jaw in her free hand while blotting at his face with the other, but Morgan squirms repeatedly in her grip, twisting his head this way and that way every time that she tries to come near him with the cloth, a sound of refusal coming out from behind his teeth. I've just barely met him, and even I can tell that he's getting pissed; I am too, angrier by the minute at how selfish she's been; I'm even angrier at her now than I was when she told me about Frank, and angry that she keeps trying to clean Morgan up when he's obviously sick of her see-sawing from the loving mother who tucks him in at night, to the stranger who practically dumps him off at another stranger's house and just leaves. My hands are clenched into fists so tight that I'm able to feel the skin peeling off under my nails as I boil. Morgan smacks Emma's hand away, glaring at her even as she wrenches his jaw back towards her, and he whimpers pitifully, staring at her in shock.
"Enough of this shit." I hiss loudly, my strides eating up the floor beneath my feet before I snatch the cloth from her hand, not about to let her punish him for her mistakes. Morgan stills immediately as I touch the cloth gently to his face, although I'm not sure if it's because of how angry that I sounded a short time ago, or just because I'm basically a stranger touching his face, however innocent my gesture is. His stare becomes stuck on my face, red, puffy, deep blue eyes blinking at me every so often, but he doesn't move a muscle, doesn't speak, his lower lip trembling. I'm not pissed at you, just your mother. I want so badly to tell him this, but we're in one of those moments now where it feels as if silence is the best policy. When I'm finished he merely nods at me, wandering aimlessly into the living room. Although every part of me yearns to block her path, Emma follows Morgan into the living room with his bag on her shoulder, kneeling down beside him at the coffee table and undoing the zipper, mechanically removing an enormous box of Crayola Crayons and a few sheets of computer paper. Morgan glances at them with disinterest.
"Morgan, please Honey," Emma pleads, pulling him away from the table, handing him a random crayon as I enter the room. Taking the crayon from her hand, he throws it into the kitchen, looking pointedly back at her. She frames his face with both hands "Please don't be upset with me the entire time that you're here, promise me that when I come back for you that you'll be excited to tell me all about all the fun that you had here, okay? Promise me that." He remains deathly silent, his only response being when she hugs him again, breathing in through her nose and out of her mouth. Out of the corner of my eye, I catch the sight of the nylon cord slipping almost effortlessly off of Emma's neck and into Morgan's other hand which he slides coyly into the pocket of his overalls. They come up empty a second later. So maaaybe my son is a kleptomaniac…I think to myself, flicking my gaze towards Emma to see if she's noticed that anything is missing yet. Either she hasn't noticed anything suspicious, or she's choosing to ignore it. I'm certainly not about to say anything to Morgan about what he's just done, not yet anyway.
He wanders back into the kitchen with our eyes on him, picking up his bear and curling up with his legs tucked underneath him in front of the T. V., his small, scrawny frame sinking into the cushions of my couch, a horrible mustard colored abomination with large, grandmotherly roses on it and liquor stains courtesy of some of my sloppier college buddies. My own grandmother loved the hideous piece of puke, but I hate it more than any other piece of furniture that I've ever laid eyes on, and in my search for décor I've seen some really ugly stuff. Flipping through the channels until I find a suitable program, Little Bear, I watch his eyes stare blankly at the characters on the screen as he snuggles his bear up against his chest.
"What's its name," I hear myself ask, unable to stop myself. "Is it a he or a she?" Morgan stares at me as if I've grown a second head, fiddling with his pocket, and for a second I fear that he won't answer me.
"It's a Mr." he answers matter-of-factly, glancing at me for the briefest second before returning his attention to the show playing in front of him.
"Just "Mr. ,"?" I press, feeling like inserting my shoe into my mouth. His stare is cool and distant, pinning me. Emma watches me flounder, her neatly waxed eyebrows knitting together before she returns her gaze to the T. V.
"No, it's Mr. Bobble."
"Does he have a nickname, like '"Bob"?"Damn you, Robert; Shut up, shut up, shut up.
"Oh," Standing up from the blue jean colored loveseat, another hideous garage sale find, Emma slowly gathers her purse and slings it over her shoulder to leave, her matching wide-heeled sandals muffled by the carpet. "Will you and Mr. Bobble be alright by yourselves for a few minutes?" He nods, wiping his nose on the back of his hand. "Don't do drugs while I'm gone, okay?" I mean it as a joke, but he just blinks bewilderedly at me.
Slamming the front door a little too hard, I follow Emma at a jog as she part runs part stumbles towards the car. "Emma, Emma, you can't just leave him here!" I shout, struggling to keep up without tripping down the porch steps in my haste, but she keeps on going as if I haven't spoken at all. "So that's it then: you're just going to run off like a big coward?" I taunt, starting to feel the anger course through my veins when she keeps ignoring me, her hands braced on the passenger-side door of the Ferrari, her eyes closed.
"I'm not being a coward, Robert." she returns stonily, still not looking at me.
"It sure looks like it to me."
"Well, I'm not."
"Nice comeback, so if you're not being a coward, then what are you doing this for? Or is it a question of whom?" Emma stiffens her voice low and controlled, barely concealed anger dripping from it.
"This has nothing to do with Frank, Robert."
"If you say so, Emma, although I seriously doubt it."
"You believe what you want to."
"So what's really happening here then? It's not Frank, or so you say anyway, and it's not cowardice, again, or so you say. What is it then?" I can hear myself echoing almost the exact same words from years earlier, begging her on the inside to please explain what's changed. It's obvious that she loves Morgan from their interaction in the kitchen, so what's made her suddenly want to give that up? Leaning against the door next to her coral pink manicured nails as they grip it for dear life I watch as her knuckles turn white.
"You wouldn't understand." she answers quietly, opening her eyes.
"Yeah, you're probably right, I am pretty stupid." I mock her, getting angrier by the minute, narrowing my eyes.
"I can't do it," she whispers in a choked voice, a few tears dripping onto the seat. "I thought that I could, but I can't, Robert." My anger doesn't lessen with the sight of her tears.
"Can't do what?" I snap. "What can't you do?"
"He always wants something." The laugh bursts out of me, causing her to whip around and glare daggers at me. I simply shrug in response, my voice saturated with venom as I step closer to her, a mask of rage contorting my features while she seems to shrink underneath my glare.
"I hate to disappoint you, Sweetheart, but that's the way that kids work; it's called being "responsible for your choices", of course if you'd told me what was going on then, I could've helped you out, but noooo, you wanted to be on your own. Well, now you're on your own! Now get the fuck off of my property!" Suddenly though, Emma bursts into tears, and I'm left feeling like a complete jackass. Why does it seem that girls have this unique ability to cry as if on cue? It is not sexy, it is not funny, and it does not make me want to hug you and make it all better, okay so maybe it does. She drags her gaze up towards mine; melted dark chocolate reaching down deep inside of me for something that I'm not even sure is real, and for the first time I can truly see how worn out that she looks. Shadows haunt her, putting years on her face that don't belong there, a weariness in her frame that seems odd for her twenty-two year old bones, and I want so much to find even a drop of sympathy for her plight, but I can't no matter how much that I want to hold her in my arms when I look into her pitifully sad face. So much that my bones seem to ache with the desire, but I refuse to give her that satisfaction.
In our younger days, Emma was always planning things at least a mile ahead of where we were at the time in our relationship while I learned early on to just go with the flow, knowing how easily bored that she got once those things lost their new appeal; she had the biggest, most expansive wardrobe of anyone that I'd ever met, a shopaholic's dream, a vast collection of music that I often joked "could rival Michael Jackson's", and the sickest car out of everyone in her senior class. She was the girl who became someone different every day, and she knew all of the "popular" girls and boys on a first-name basis. I started noticing though, how even though she "knew" all of these people, that she didn't hang out with the same ones every day or do any of the same things the same way every day. She didn't seem to have a best friend the way that girls often do, and even though she owned a lot of the best stuff, she never seemed to use everything more than two weeks before she moved on to something else. My guess is that she probably thought that being a mother would be like buying a new outfit; she'd wear it for awhile and think that she looked awesome in it, but then something new would come out, perhaps Morgan's Terrible Twos, or he hadn't slept as well as she would've liked him to, something had opened her glazed over eyes at last, and she'd seen that parenthood isn't all candied apples and candy canes, and now she wants me to feel sorry for her. Well, sorry.
"I just feel trapped, you know? Frank and I barely get any alone time anymore and there's the way that he treats Lilly, always refusing to share with her…I just don't know what's gotten into him." Sighing loudly, she looks up at me, studying my face for my reaction, but I'm still and silent as a statue. Emma's tears have dried, hope shining in her eyes.
"He's a kid who doesn't like to share, big whoop. Name me a five-year old who actually does like to share and doesn't need his mother for almost everything." I reply, still not sure that this is as big of a catastrophe as she's making it out to be. Seeing my raised eyebrow, Emma hurries on with bemoaning her wretched, horrible, and pathetic state.
"He doesn't seem to like Frank all that much."
"I don't like Frank all that much either, he probably inherited it from me." I answer blankly, crossing my arms over my chest. She turns scarlet "Well, I'd hoped that they'd bond more. Frank is Morgan's step-father after all."
"Frank Hollingsworth is nothing but a goody-two-shoes gone wrong, and you're just his good little sugar mama." I reply coldly, taking another step towards her so that she backs up against the door. I take a step back, the flowery aroma of her perfume distracting me from saying how I really feel so that she gets how wrong that this is.
"This isn't about you "feeling trapped" and all that bullshit: no, Honey, this is about Emma being completely selfish because her life didn't turn out the way that she wanted! So now she wants to tell poor, lonely Robert that he has a son, so that "poor, lonely Robert", can take him off of her hands!" I step away, feeling the adrenaline pumping through me more and more with every word, spurred on by her tears. Emma turns away, wiping her eyes on the back of her hand and messing up her make-up irreparably before watching me drive the knife in further, a sorrowful expression on her face.
"That's not true!" she screams helplessly.
"But wait, wait, that's not even the best part, my Honeysuckle, do let me finish before you interrupt!" Holding up a hand to stop her rebuttal as Emma stares at me like I'm a lunatic on a murderous rampage, hurt clearly displayed in her crying eyes, I go on as if I never heard her. "Then, Emma lies…to their son, telling him 'Oh, I'll be back soon. I love you, so much.'" She stares some more, horrified as I spit on the ground in disgust. "What kind of sick, twisted person are you?Lying to a child like that? It's despicable. I don't even know who you are anymore, maybe I never did." Spent, I finally hold her gaze, letting her tears roll over me like raindrops. She moves to grab my shoulder, and I surprise myself by stepping away from her touch. I don't want her pity, her guilt, her feeling of obligation to comfort me, I'm still too angry for any of that.
Emma looks as if I've completely broken her, her lips opening and closing with no sound coming out of them, a few tears streaming down her cheeks.
"You knew me," she whispers softly, voice rising. "You knew I was like this!" More tears follow. I really wish that she'd stop the cycle of yelling, because I'm getting too tired to yell back at her. Moreover, I'm confused by what she means when she says "like this." Like what: A completely selfish bitch or a liar? You know what, I think that this little theatrical warrants a "cunt", and yeah Darling, I almost never thought that you'd be one of those.
"I'm not a mind-reader, Emma. I don't know what you're talking about." I answer calmly, sincerely confused.
"I have Bipolar Disorder."
"So?" I shrug nonchalantly. "Do you want a medal?"
Emma shoots me an intense glare, sighing dramatically and putting her hands on her hips, frustrated at my less than impressed reaction. Oh no you didn't, Girl, tell me that you DID NOT just PUT YOUR HANDS, ON YOUR HIPS!
"No, I'd think that telling you that would help you to understand why I'm doing this, that you'd be more supportive."
"Isn't that Frank's job?" I ask pointedly, making her sigh again. "A lot of people have Bipolar, Emma; they go through their cycles and I'm sure that some drop their younger kids off at Granny's or whatever when they feel overwhelmed by it, but I don't think that that's why you're doing this, or at least, not the only reason. I know there's medicine to manage it, why don't you take some, take a few weeks to get to where you feel better, and come back for Morgan then?"
"It's complicated, why can't you just take him?" She looks the part of a spoiled brat, ever the coddled wife from a fancy neighborhood with cookie cutter houses and people who clean her football-field sized pool for her while she just lays in bed feeling sorry for herself.
"Why don't you want him? You know what, go, right now. Take your shiny foreign car and…" Eyes on hers the entire time as I bend to casually pick up her keys from where she'd dropped them on the ground in her haste to get away, I stalk towards her and the car, my mind intent on one thing, the sharp end of the key glittering in the midmorning sunlight, dangerous and thrilling.
The ungodly screeching of the car's expensive paint job as I vandalize it is like the chorus of ten-thousand angels to my revenge-starved brain, feeding it ambrosia that I gorge on greedily. Emma stands frozen, listening to the noise with a look of undisguised fury on her face. "Drive.", I whisper into her ear, throwing the keys into the seat once I've finished.
"You'll be receiving the bill for that little stunt, I hope that you know that." she hisses, sliding into the car and giving me one last glare that I return wholeheartedly, focusing it on her until she breaks the contact, jerking the car into reverse and backing out of the driveway. I wait for her to come whipping back around, to realize that Morgan needs her, to realize that the world doesn't revolve around her, illness or no illness, but Emma continues on down the street until she's nothing more than a dot on the horizon. Finally, she disappears altogether.
Trudging heavily back inside feeling like the world is on my shoulders, I spot an open duffel bag lying beside the coffee table, a box of crayons lying on its side on top of a sheet of blank computer paper, and then I remember Morgan. He's living here now, and I told him to wait here inside while I tore into his mother like a psycho. Oh Shit, oh fuck, oh cheese and crackers fuck. All hope that he hadn't heard any of my fight with his mother drains out of me little dribble by dribble as I search the eerily silent house for my missing son, calling him to no avail. A door at the end of the hallway is open just a crack more than usual, giving me hope that he hasn't jumped out of the window.
Peeking into the opening I push the door open more when I see the furry ear of Mr. Bobble sticking out from beneath the gray comforter, the slow, rhythmic sound of breathing easing my worries just a hair as I pad silently and carefully towards the small lump buried underneath the covers. Once again I'm struck speechless by the sight of him, and the realization hits me again that this beautiful little person is my fucking child, my absolutely perfect gift, and all that other mushy gushy junk that people say about their kids. My hand caresses his cheek, my fingertips coming away moist as the light reflects off of Morgan's face. Guilt surges through me like volts of electricity; he'd clearly cried himself to sleep, and without me here to comfort him it'd probably been even worse. You should've just let her leave without opening your big mouth, then at least you could've been in here being a father to your son, instead of having the neighbors think that you desperately need to be carted off to the loony bin. There's nothing to do to salvage their opinions now though, so I guess that my next stop is the kitchen table where a stack of bills awaits me while Morgan gets some sleep to recover from the absolute disaster that his morning has been.
Bills, bills, and more bills; my eyeballs are getting tired of staring at them all, endless calculations that make my head ache with all of the numbers dancing before my downcast gaze. I've been at this for over an hour, I grumble, deciding to take a break in order to raid my fridge. It is during this raid though, like most of my brilliant epiphanies, that I notice how truly unprepared that I was for a child, as there's practically nothing in my fridge save for a few Mountain Dews, a swig of milk, and some lunch meat and cheese that's probably seen better days. Luckily for Morgan and I, being a bachelor means that there's always a woman who'll cook for you out of pity because she feels that you probably can't cook worth a damn on your own.
"Robert, just what could you be calling me for on my weekend off?" Smiling with faint amusement at the woman's playful attitude, I shift the cordless to my other ear before speaking.
"Hello, Helga, I'm sorry to be bothering you on your weekend off, but I just looked in my refrigerator and saw how I have no food that's suitable for human consumption, and I know how much you bitch at me every time that you see me for not eating enough, so I figured that I'd ask you to come over and cook something for me so that I don't starve to death."
"That's because you don't eat enough, my goodness, I've never seen someone so thin in all my life! Robert you need fresh, lean red meat, steamed vegetables, some whole grain, and a big, tall glass of milk to wash it all down with, and it probably wouldn't hurt if you cut down on all that running that you do…" Pacing around the kitchen as I listen patiently to her usual rant, I notice that Morgan has awoken and is standing bewilderedly in the kitchen entryway, one hand holding Mr. Bobble while his other fist rubs sleep from his eyes. Coming back to the counter for a rest I glance at his curious expression, watching him look around the kitchen again before resuming my pacing.
"This is going to sound surprising," I begin, cutting Helga off mid-sentence "But my son is here with me, and I don't really know what to feed him." Smiling sheepishly at my own ignorance, I wait for her response.
"You have a son?"
"Yes." I answer simply, not about to get into the distressful topic of how I'd made that discovery with Morgan present.
"Well, how nice for you, Robert, how old is he?" Just as I knew she would, Helga switches topics effortlessly, peppering me with likeminded questions about Morgan, who watches me talk to her with his expression shifting between confused and curious.
"Are you hungry, Buddy? This lady has mad skills in the kitchen, so we've just got make it sound like we're dying, and she'll fix us a feast." He nods a little. I decide to try asking something that requires more than a "yes" or a "no", anxious to make him more comfortable around me. "What do you like to eat?" He shrugs. "Well, I guess that we'll just have to find out then."
"What all can you cook?" I ask urgently.
"I can cook anything, Robert. Don't insult me like that, now hang up and get the poor bambino something to eat, and do not, feed him out of a can, there's all kinds of bacteria and viruses out there these days. Freshly harvested food, that's what children need."
"Goodbye, Helga. Thank you." I don't know how people manage not to lose their minds over there. Morgan and I split a pack of peanut butter crackers while we wait for Helga. Nibbling fretfully on his last one, he finally gives up the charade of comfortable silence, blurting out his question just as I'd been hoping that he wouldn't, at least not while we're waiting for Helga, because since she's under the impression that Morgan and I are hungry enough to eat out of cans, something that she absolutely loathes, she's liable to bust through the door at any moment, "tool kit" in hand, ready to fill us up until our buttons pop off, and this is the sort of issue that I want to stay between Morgan and I, at least for right now.
"Do you hate, Mama?" he asks quietly, searching me with his gaze, fear lurking in its depths, and for the thousandth time today I wish that he hadn't heard me go off on Emma like that, that he hadn't heard all of the nasty things that I said to her, even though I was royally pissed off at her and I kind of had a reason to be, I still wish that Morgan hadn't gotten caught in the crossfire. Guilt gnaws at me as I recall how I'd shouted to the whole world about Emma's love for him being a lie, how that must've hurt him! It's my first day on the job, and already I deserve to be fired.
"No, I don't hate your mother, Morgan; I was angry because she was doing something wrong, and so I said some pretty mean things to her that I shouldn't have said, especially not with you in the house to hear and see it all; I loved your mother very much, I just wish that sometimes she'd make better choices." I beg him to understand how deeply sorry that I am and how honest that I'm being with him with my eyes.
His brow furrows, not quite understanding. "But if you love her, then why were you mean to her?"
"Don't you get angry with Lilly whenever she does something that you don't like?" He nods.
"She takes my toys and breaks them sometimes; I try to tell her that I don't like it, but Mama says that she's just a baby, and Frank tells me that I should share more and be nicer to her, 'cause she might get a really cool toy one day and I'll want to play with it too, but she's not going to let me 'cause I'm so mean to her." I nod, having a pretty good idea of just which toy that Morgan hadn't wanted to share.
"Well that's like what happened outside today: your mother did something that made me angry even though I tried to tell her how I felt, and I acted on that anger by yelling when she didn't listen. You have to make up your mind not to get angry or you will get angry, but just because you're mean to someone it doesn't mean that you don't care about them and want what's best for them: It means that you should try to be nicer next time, and never go to bed without saying 'I love you', do you understand?" Again, he gives me the usual nod, going thoughtfully back to his forgotten cracker. Damn, I forgot his drink. But when I place a small cup of water in front of him, Morgan glances back up at me, then down at the cup, watching the condensation evaporate and then slide down onto the table without moving to take a sip. God, why isn't he drinking it, I wonder anxiously, a case of New Mom Syndrome settling into me.
"I need my sippy-cup," he tells me quietly.
"You need your sippy-cup?" Isn't Morgan like five?
"I've never had a big people's cup before: Frank never let Lilly and me have them 'cause we might spill it on the carpet."
"Bastard." I hiss angrily underneath my breath. Morgan raises an eyebrow at me.
"Sorry, they just jump out of me sometimes," I say quickly, realizing my verbal blunder as heat creeps up my neck. "Well if it'll make you more comfortable, although that's just water in there, Morgan. It's easy to clean up. Do you have one with you?"He hands me a lime green cup with monkeys swinging on banana trees, anxiously watching me fill it about halfway with water and then secure it with the lid; I frown at the wall as he drinks eagerly from it like a baby camel. Did he sleep in Lilly's crib with her too 'cause old anal Frank couldn't stand the thought of having a child's bed unmade?
A knock on the door shatters the quiet between us. Laden with paper grocery bags filled to overflowing with various ingredients, almost all of Helga's face is obscured as she picks her way cautiously over the threshold.
"Did you buy out the whole store?" I joke, carefully taking a few loads off of her hands before she drops them on my feet. Depositing her many purchases on the counter she gives me her most stern glare.
"No, I did not, but I did spend over half of my paycheck on you, so you'll be a good boy not to complain," She swats my cheek and moves on to unpack, missing my cheeky grin as she washes her hands and fishes a cutting board out of the cabinet.
"As long as you bought me that new Camaro that I've wanted I'll be as sweet as candy, did you buy it yet?"
"Yep, it's sitting in my garage right now with a big bow on it."
"Why do you tease me; it's so hateful?" Morgan stares at us, catching Helga's sparkling green eyes from the table. Ignoring his less-than-welcoming probing eyes, she takes the chair that I'd previously occupied as I come to join them, sitting down across from Morgan to help him with that shyness that children feel when meeting a new adult. "Morgan, this is one of our neighbors, Ms. Helga Bartul, Helga, this is my son, Morgan. He's spending some time with me while his mother is away."
"It's nice to meet you, Morgan; I hope that you've been giving your father lots of trouble. He's a real butthole sometimes, always dragging me away on my days off to slave over this kitchen. I think that he deserves some trouble, don't you?" Morgan shrugs, hesitantly shaking her offered hand before going back to his drink, while Helga smiles like she's won the lottery, flouncing off to do my bidding with a wave of her hand. "You two go do things in the man-cave and let me work my magic! Robert, I hope that you cleaned this oven from the last time that I cooked!"
"It's your job to cook, and ours to sample!" Her response is to throw a crumpled up grocery bag at my head as Morgan and I leave her to her sanctuary. He surprises me by climbing onto the couch next to me and cuddling up underneath my chin with Mr. Bobble underneath one arm. The surprise must show on my face though, because Morgan raises his eyebrow at me, mirroring my own expression. "What brought this on all the sudden, Morgan?"
"I don't want you to care about Ms. Bertell the way that you cared about Mama," he answers quietly, and suddenly I feel a knot forming in my throat. I wasn't there to see him break down as he listened to my "conversation" with Emma, so I have no idea what to do to stop it.
"Why not, was she mean to you when I wasn't looking? She's not in there poisoning our food, is she?" Smiling at him in an attempt to help him see that Helga bears no threat to our relationship I pat his head, running my fingers through the silkiness of its fine texture and breathing in the strawberry scent of children's shampoo.
"No, but she might not want a kid that doesn't really belong to her. I don't want you to forget me, and if you start to care about her the way that you used to about Mama you might forget me." I can see past hurt, past neglect in his wide, innocent eyes, feel it in the way that his little hands dig into the thinness of my ratty old T-shirt as he puts his head directly into the hollow of my throat, spreading himself out on top of me until every one of his limbs is touching me in some way. If someone shot us right now, the bullet would go through Morgan first, then me. Pushing that terrifying thought to the very back of my mind, I flip the T.V. on to search for something disgustingly boring that might put him to sleep for a short nap until supper: Sports stats, that'll put any kid to sleep. But it doesn't put me to sleep; I'm lying flat on my back with a musty couch to sleep on, and a kid who, besides being a human shield, feels the bizarre need to kick my kneecaps every five minutes (which hurts like a bitch, if it's done right, and multiple times), and I'm literally having to bite my tongue until it bleeds to avoid screaming: "Motherfucking Mary!" If I put him somewhere else though he'd get upset, and I'm just not ready to try my hand at dealing with that yet. Plus, I don't want him to feel like it's not okay if he wants to sit with me or whatever. He blinks at me, his feet mercifully still.
"You promise that you're just friends?"
"Yes, I promise Morgan; nothing is happening, and I wouldn't forget you, even if something was, okay?"
"No, people say that all the time, and then they forget you, maybe not 'cause they don't care, but they still forget. Mama used to tell her old friends that all the time before they moved away, now she doesn't call them even once a month to check on them. They could be dead by now and she would just go on with her life like they never mattered at all. It hurts to be forgotten." I sigh, the action coming from deep inside of me at the look of absolute conviction on his face, and I want to strangle a certain someone for burdening him with all of this crap.
"What would make you feel better?"
"I want Mama back. I want her back, I want her back, I want her back…" He repeats it over and over, getting more desperate with each syllable until I'm forced to sit up as he loses the battle and starts bawling. Helga glances anxiously into the living room, wiping her hands onto a paper towel and watching Morgan who's currently clinging to me like a monkey, the sobbing continuing as I try my best to soothe him, patting his back and whispering to him.
"Supper will be ready in a few minutes. It's Eggplant Caponata, has he ever had that?" I shrug, as clueless as she is. Truth be told I have more important things to be concerned with. Shaking my head at her to get her to back off when Helga holds out a piece of what must be eggplant (it looks nothing like an egg, by the way), I resume being "soothing", noticing with no small amount of relief that he's finally getting tired/calming down; I really don't know which would be better for him at the moment.
"That's right," I pat his back some more, humming some piano ballad that I heard a few weeks ago. "Let it all go. It doesn't matter anymore. It's just dust in the wind." I want so badly to believe it, to bitch slap Emma for cutting him up into ribbons like this, like nothing would satisfy me more right now, than to walk right up to her and to slap her right in the mouth. She won't get joint-custody, not if I have anything to say about it. I want her to see this, to see how badly she's broken him, but more than anything, I want her to walk back through my door and wipe all of his tears away. Nothing like that happens though.
Supper is an almost completely silent affair. Instead of filling the room with one of her usual stories, Helga merely sips delicately at her glass of white wine, cutting her food into dainty squares and glancing at Morgan every now and then. I eat slowly, never having had a thing for Italian food, while Morgan shovels it in like he hasn't eaten in days, barely giving me a chance to cut it up before he dives back in again. I don't know if it's because he's truly that hungry, if he's always had this big of an appetite, if the food actually tastes that good to him, or if it's something more serious like Binge-Eating-Disorder. Either way, Morgan clocks out on top of me again practically as soon as he lies down, small hiccups making him pop up every now and again. Doing my best not to laugh, (he's laying spread out again, only this time his mouth is wide open, and every time that he hiccups, his head just pops up a bit, then he plops it back down again), I settle him carefully into bed, making sure to leave the bathroom light on when I crack the door open. I'll have to buy a night-light soon.
Taking off everything except my boxers, a snugly-buggly urge comes over me, (as it almost always does after you eat Helga's cooking; you just want to slide into bed and snuggle underneath the warm covers, thinking about nice things like cupcakes and sex, drifting off as that weird music box music plays inside of your head). But…sadly I have no cupcakes, and no sex. But the snugly-buggly urge remains, and so I throw the room into darkness and lie in bed staring at the ceiling, wishing that I had a cupcake. I relive the fight with Emma like it's a broken record, only in my place inside of my head, I see Morgan instead. Cursing her, hating her, breaking her into unrecognizable pieces, then he shatters too. That's horrible, just plain horrible though, so I go back to my cupcake wish, putting chocolate icing and sprinkles on top.
Something hard slides into my mouth, our walk down the beach, the ride on the farris wheel seeming like they happened a lifetime ago. Her skin is sun kissed and warm when I touch her shoulders to bring her towards me for a kiss, biting down on the peppermint with a loud crunch and sucking diligently on the two halves, swirling the taste around in my mouth before gently brushing my lips coyly against hers, testing. She giggles, a protesting sound, batting my hands away before changing her mind and pushing her mouth up against mine, speaking softly against my lips as my hands find their way up underneath her thin sweater. A shiver travels up her spine the moment that there's skin on skin contact, and I'm reminded again of how much that I love this. Not the sex, (although I'd be lying if I said that it's not great too), but these tender moments between us where I'm just touching her and she giggles and laughs until we both give in, where we just pour our hearts out to each other, and I know that I wanna marry her. She's home.
"I love you." she whispers, taking the shrunken candy from my mouth as I taste her sweet kiss. Fire burns a path across the surface of my skin, leaving me weak and hungry for more like a starving dog, and I wonder if she even knows how she makes me feel from just the simplest and most innocent of caresses. Even if she gave me everything right here, right now, I'd keep coming back for more like a yo-yo. More of her sweet kisses, her words telling me exactly how she feels, her giggles and shivers whenever I touch her. There's nothing like the feeling of knowing that you can make someone feel so much without actually doing anything: it's both exhilarating and terrifying at the same time. When someone is able to do it to you…you're not sure what the hell to do. You want to tell them everything, because you know that you can trust them; you know that they'll understand exactly how you feel. Then once they've seen you, the real you, you know that they'll accept you for you, fucked up pieces and all. She's good like that, so so good. I can't even hope to compare to this girl. "Do you love me?" she asks, her voice suddenly holding a trace of anxiety as she stares up at me with those gorgeous dark brown eyes of hers. As cliché as it is, I truly think that I might melt if I stare into those eyes too long. They're filled to the brim with such gentleness and kindness right now that it floors me.
"You have no idea how much." I reply in her ear, framing her face with both hands and kissing her deeply, stealing the candy back and swallowing the little pieces whole. They could choke me right now and I wouldn't give a damn. Her hands move up my back, sneaking underneath my shirt, cool and exploring as her gaze searches mine after we pry our lips apart to get more oxygen in before the next round. Her fingers inch back down towards my hips, tentative now as they stay unmoving on my belt loops.
"Is this okay? It's not weird, right?"
"If it makes you uncomfortable we can stop." We really can. My body might be slightly unhappy if we do, but I want her to know that this isn't just about sex, that I'm not just running my mouth to get into her pants; if that were my intention, then I'd be gone by now. She smiles though, this really brilliant smile that lights up her whole face like a Christmas tree, clasping both of my hands inside both of hers.
"I'm with you, how on Earth could anything make me uncomfortable?" That actually makes me laugh out loud: I could spontaneously decide to race someone like a maniac driving her home, I could tell her that I want a life-sized picture of her to put on my ceiling (not really), I could just randomly ask her to marry me right now…the possibilities are truly endless if she thinks about it hard enough. But it's really a rhetorical question that I'm supposed to just smile at and say: "It couldn't", so I just smile, moving her hair back from her face and tucking it behind her ear.
"We can stop if you want to; I hope that you know that." She nods, pulling me close until our noses are almost touching and I can smell the bubble gum scent of her toothpaste.
"That's not exactly what I had in mind, but I appreciate the chivalry." Her hands suddenly pull me out into the middle of an almost empty dirt road where the street fair is held every summer and fall, the lights of the carousel and the lights from the farris wheel shining brightly in the distance like a beacon, the music and noise from the games humming in our ears. The moon casts a silvery glow to our shadows as she continues to lead me until we're directly underneath it.
"What are we doing out here?" She shushes me, suddenly swaying her hips from side to side the way that people do when they want to dance at a party but they feel awkward asking anyone or going onto the floor and busting out the freestyle and making a fool out of themselves, and I finally get it. I let her lead me through a few moves before my pride starts to suffer.
"May I have this dance?" I ask in an obviously fake British accent, bringing her hand to my lips to kiss like I've seen in practically every chick flick and black-and-white movie or T.V. show ever made. She laughs, giving me a demure smile as I return her hand to her.
"I'd be delighted, Dear Sir." Keeping time in my head as we begin to slow dance right here in the middle of the road, I pray that I don't step on her toes. I'm not awkward like that, but still. She makes me do things that I've never done before, like slow dance in the middle of the street at night where a car could speed into us at any moment and splatter our brains all over the place.
She puts her arms underneath mine, slipping her hands up my back and gripping my shoulders with her nails facing outward, like she's trying to hold my entire body in her hands, while my own arms invite themselves around her slim waist.
"Are you sure that we should be out here at this time of night," I whisper, running my fingers over the curve of her shoulder.
"Why not, are you scared of the dark?" she whispers back, a teasing light glittering in her nearly onyx eyes.
"No, I just don't know if we'll be safe out here this late; there are some crazy motherfuckers out here in these backwoods, and even crazier drivers."
"Don't worry; I'll push you out of the way." She smiles, resting a hand against my cheek.
"Not if I push you out of the way first." I reply before giving her a brief kiss on the mouth. We've resumed our dance for a bit when I begin to get bored of simply turning around and around in circles.
"You should probably hang on." I tell her, picking up where I left off after a brief recount in my head of where I was before we slowed down, picking up speed amidst her squeals of protest. Her nails dig into my shoulders again, but I'm more interested in the almost suspended animation of her face as we twirl faster and faster till the oaks around us and the dirt beneath our feet is almost a blur. Our shadows melt together until we're one big, unrecognizable blob. Emma laughs without abandon, her half-closed eyes sparkling, her once neatly brushed hair fanning out and then sticking to her cheeks, flushed with her laughter as well as with the heat of the still warm summer night happening all around us.
I don't know how long we've laughed, but my sides ache. I've never felt this good…this alive and free, and I wish that we could stay suspended like this forever, but all too soon, our feet slip out from under us, and we're holding hands as we hit the ground, still gasping for breath. Emma turns to me, sweeping her hair out of her face and giving me this teasingly reproachful look, the merriment still dancing in her eyes.
"We're never ever… never doing that again." Still trying to get oxygen back into my lungs, I can only smile in response, my breathing coming in short, shallow pants.
Once they open, my eyes struggle to adjust to the darkness cloaking my bedroom, the horrible nightmarish dream coming back to me in fragments, a longing so desperate and painful that it's almost unbearable piercing my heart like a smoldering arrow, searing my soul with the deep abiding ache of nostalgia. It's a feeling that can't be drunk away with cheap liquor, erased by time, or numbed by drugs. I should know, because I've tried everything, and it keeps creeping up on me, no matter what. I want to just slide effortlessly back into my beautiful dream world with Emma, because something about this real world seems so cold and lifeless without her here beside me. I'm a puppet with its strings cut, a dog with no master to guide it, just one big mass of need pierced through with a sword of loneliness that sits inside of my bleeding wound, probing those tender nerves and awkward stitches until blood trickles out of it in an agonizingly slow stream. I'd rather have bone crushing agony…than this persistent nostalgia
"Daddy?" The voice startles me enough that I actually jump a little, swiveling my head this way and that way as I attempt to find the owner of that voice, thinking for a brief moment that it was only part of my dream, a remnant of all of the suppressed feelings that seeing Emma again and then having the dream about our happier times together had awakened. A child's small hand tugs at my wrist, clamping about it so that there's no mistaking its corporeality before the voice speaks again, quietly but firmly, demanding my attention. A third time, this time the voice is accompanied by small fingertips brushing my forehead.
It all comes rushing back to me in waves once the light from my bedside lamp washes over his face; Emma…coming back…Morgan…Emma leaving me alone to care for him…my fight with her…everything is dropped carelessly back on top of me like a ton of bricks with one peek from over my pillow at that face.
"What's wrong, Buddy?" I mumble in a voice thick with sleep, trying to focus on him through the fog clouding my brain.
"I can't tell you," he answers, gripping the wrinkled dark green sheets falling partway off of the bed and attempting to haul himself up onto the mattress beside me, grunting with the effort. "You'll get mad at me." he mumbles, glancing tentatively at my frowning face.
"Morgan I know that your mom just kind of threw us together at the last minute," a picture of Emma floats into my mind. "But that isn't your fault, okay? How your mom and I acted…none of that is your fault, okay? I know that it's hard to understand right now when your mind is so full of questions and feelings, but if anything is bothering you, Son, I need you to know that you can tell me about it and I won't be upset. I don't know how much of a father that Frank was to you, but I'm learning too, just like you. You don't have any reason to be afraid of me, Son." He nods, weighing his options in his head as he judges my face for sincerity.
"Promise that you won't get mad?" He bites his lip, sucking briefly on his fist.
"I promise." I say.
"I threw up in my bed," He glances at me again, analyzing. "Mr. Bobble has some on him, and I can't get back to sleep."
"Have you been lying in it, or did it just happen?"
"I tried to take my over-alls off. I tried to go to the bathroom. Really I did, but I couldn't find it in the dark…" His lips blab on and on, his discomfort painfully evident in his tone. I don't remind him that I left the bathroom light on for him. The smell of vomit rolls off of him, making my own stomach recoil.
"Come lie down in my bed, I'll get you some new clothes, okay? You stay right here and I'll put you in the bath when I get back."
"Are you mad at me?" His piercing blue eyes hold me prisoner as I slowly unfold my body and rise from the bed, working a crick out of my neck. Ah, the joys of getting old. Soon my ass will have folds of wrinkly skin hanging off of it, and my balls will look like shriveled raisins, then it's off down the river for me.
"No, you couldn't help getting sick." He follows me into his bedroom, where a messy and scattered pile of regurgitated caponata paints the once fresh green sheets, my mind a jumbled mess as it's made blatantly clear to me that he's been lying in his own vomit. He watches anxiously as I silently change the sheets, my emotions churning violently in my chest, Morgan's fear weighing heavily in my stomach like the vomit that had swam around in his gut.
"I'm sorry." he whispers as he watches me load the dirty linens into the washer, adding an extra half cup of detergent for good measure, turning around just in time to see the crystalline tears forming in his eyes.
"No, no, no, no," I beg him, rushing back to him as the first tear rolls down his cheek. "Look, look, look, Morgan, look at me." I can't bear any more tears tonight, I'd rather have him kicking and screaming on the floor; at least then I'd be able to get him subdued. But the crying and the sadness and the apologies and the pleading look in his eyes whenever the tears happen…the begging for me to put an end to his pain…that cuts me so deeply that all I want is to make the pain go away. My thoughts are consumed by that desire now…that need to be everything that he needs me to be, no matter what. Braving the look again as it stabs me like a knife, I gently and carefully unhook his vomit soaked overalls, letting him hold onto me for balance as he works them over his bare feet, leaving them in a heap on the floor. He's still crying silently as I ask him to raise his arms up over his head to take his shirt off. It matches the stark blue of his eyes with sunshine yellow pinstripes across the front, something that looks much too expensive for Emma to have afforded by herself. Oh well, it's got vomit on it now. "You just overate, that's all. Do you feel better?"Morgan nods his head as I pat his shoulder. "Well, that's all that matters. Now you and I are gonna go put you in the bathtub, okay? We're gonna wash your hair and your body, and I'm gonna put Mr. Bobble in a pillowcase and in the washer while we're doing that."
"It won't hurt him, will it?" Twisting his fingers nervously in front of him, Morgan waits for my reply, his gaze darting anxiously across my face.
"No, my mom used to do the same thing to my toys; it never hurt them a bit." I answer with a reassuring smile. Finally, although just barely, he returns the gesture, smiling this meager little half-smile, a flicker of light shining in his previously dim eyes; my heart feels a tad lighter in the face of his approval, something that I can already tell he's extremely stingy with. For now at least, I've done well. Surprising even myself with my eagerness, I pick Morgan up in my arms and settle him against my shoulder. It feels so natural that I should want to hold him and offer him comfort and relief right now…so right that when he accepts the offer by wrapping his arms around my neck that he fits snugly into my embrace. Carrying him into the bathroom, I must now practice the fine art of one-handed multi-tasking, searching through my cabinet for some baby shampoo that I don't have, and adjusting the water temperature for the bath, acutely aware of his gaze carefully documenting my every move from his perch in the crook of my arm.
All in all, bathing Morgan turned out to be easy enough…as long as I managed not to get soap in his eyes, but the thing that really bothers him is when you splash him in the face to get it out, or just splashing in general, but I learn quickly not to splash his face. Even sticking his head underwater doesn't seem to faze him all that much, as long as I don't turn the faucet on full blast while he's under.
"What if…I hold your head, and then we turn the faucet on? We'll count to three so that you'll be ready."
"No, I don't want to stick my head under the faucet at all." Morgan's mouth draws into an uncompromising frown as he sits in the lukewarm water, eyes closed as a mountain of shampoo sits atop his head.
"Well, why don't you want to?" I sigh, missing the warmth of my bed immensely, but Morgan seems perfectly at ease to sleep in the tub, as long as I don't put him under the faucet myself.
"I just don't want to; Mama never makes me." I nod, actually glad that he didn't make me ask again; I've already asked three other times, and each time he's clammed up and given me the exact same answer in the exact same matter-of-fact tone that tells me he's not going to budge on this no matter how hard I try to fish the real reason out of him.
"Okay, what does she do then?"
"She gets in the tub with me and helps me wash the soap out." You've got to be fucking kidding me. But Morgan indicates no such duplicity, staring at me expectantly with his eyes squinting. "Are you getting in, or aren't you?" he asks pointedly while I try to think of a way to refuse, any way to get out of this and still get him clean without having to endure those tears or screams because I did something wrong or was too tough on him during his adjustment period. I do not want to get in the bath at almost two thirty in the morning, I want my bed. My sweet…wonderful bed; so warm and inviting…I miss you.
"Alright," I tell him with a sigh, stepping out of the rest of my clothes and then stepping gingerly into the surprisingly cool water, startled when Morgan situates himself on my lap, leaning back and resting his head against my chest. "But it'll have to be quick, I'm sleepy." Nodding, Morgan closes his eyes, crossing his arms over his chest baptism style before I dunk him under the water, holding him under for a second before lifting him out. Coughing and sputtering he emerges, whipping around as I pat his back, glaring at me.
"I was cold, not ready to die." he informs me once the breath returns to his lungs, causing me to notice the goosebumps sprouting across his skin.
"I'm sorry. I didn't know" I answer gently. Morgan nods, his emotions beginning to show as he leans back against me, his back trembling against me.
"Mama would've known." he whispers, his remark tearing at my heart. Yeah, she probably would have. We say nothing more as I rinse his hair with a cup, watching his eyelids grow heavy and finally droop. His breathing levels out to a steady sighing sound as I step out, tying a towel around my waist in a loose knot and pulling Morgan closer to shelter him from the blast of cold air that gusts through the house the minute we step out. The remark about his mother still swarms around in my head, the realization that he's right, that I really don't have any idea what the hell I'm doing at the end of the day, rubs me in all of the wrong places, probing my wound in a whole new, much more painful way. I long for a tall stiff drink now more than I ever have when dreams of Emma have woken me in the past, almost enough to wish that I hadn't gotten sober six and a half years ago at Emma's request after the disastrous results of the cocktail party. We'd both gotten slamming drunk at my parents' fifteenth anniversary party, and by "slamming drunk", I mean that we were both so drunk that we were dancing on tables and the silliest, stupidest shit pissed us off. We ended up throwing plates at each other like baseballs…and somehow I remember Emma ending up in a tablecloth like a beauty pageant contestant, stumbling across the tabletop like a hammered model would across a catwalk, waving sloppily to my parents guests. Needless to say…we were accordingly and forcibly escorted out…and then we were banned from the country club for life. Part of me wants to take a drink only to spite Emma, a big "fuck you" if you will, but I don't really want to drink with Morgan being sick. I'm not an alcoholic, but still, people really shouldn't drink like I want to in front of their kids.
"What are you doiiing?" Morgan whines sleepily as I begin viciously unpacking his bag, trying my best not to do any damage to his things in my anger, but practically nothing in his bag looks like it's "his." Instead it's all meticulously neat…high-dollar clothing that reeks of Frank; polo shirts and perfectly dry-cleaned miniature Armani suits and ties, various styles of pants and shorts from Calvin Klein…and all of it paints an unflattering portrait of the stuffy, arrogant, OCD asshole that my girl ran to when I wasn't good enough for her. The very same man had apparently been trying to mold my son into the same breed of scum…and Emma had been letting him! That just makes me want to punch a baby, a wall, something, and I sure as hell don't need to expose Morgan to that kind of anger again, especially not twice in the same day! Pausing to take a deep breath and work on calming down, I gather the scattered articles of clothing and throw them in a heap on the bed beside his head. Not liking my silence, Morgan repeats the question, rolling over inside of his towel to watch me clean the dresser out. "What are you doing that for, Daddy?" He points to an open drawer that's half-full of his underwear, while the other half of it is filled with my old photographs.
"I'm putting your clothes away so that they won't wrinkle. They'll be right here for tomorrow, okay?"
"Okay," he answers, hesitancy apparent in his voice as he watches stack after stack of clothes disappear until all six drawers are full. "Daddy?"
"When do you think Mama will be back?" My hand goes still, my fingers intent on grabbing a sky blue and white polo, but my heart seems to be stuck inside of my throat, preventing me from swallowing or from completing the task. Morgan watches me flounder, anxiety surfacing in his eyes as they meet mine.
I can't lie to him, but I can't exactly tell him the truth either, not without breaking his heart into a thousand more pieces. What do I do? "I don't know, Morgan. I wish that I did, but it looks like you'll be staying here for awhile." I reply quietly, sinking down to the mattress and sitting beside him. Without waiting for an invitation from me, he climbs into my lap again, raising his arms above his head for me to put an orange Winnie the Pooh T-shirt over his head while he takes care of the matching shorts. "I know that you didn't brush your teeth, so I want you to go do that, okay? I put your toothbrush with mine in the little red cup, and there's a step-stool in there that Helga bought for you."
As I finish putting his odds and ends in a random basket in the room, my gaze lands on the pile of pictures stacked on the bed. Some had been taken by friends and family, some by me, while others had been taken by Emma; pictures of us, of me, and her, even some pictures of me as a child with my parents, all taken during various occasions and holidays… Gathering them up somewhat lovingly into my hands, holding them securely against my chest without even pausing to go through them and take a nice walk down memory lane, I sneak quietly into the kitchen with no particular thoughts in mind, only the thought that these pictures don't have to exist anymore; I've had my time with Emma and it's over, I don't have to put myself through the pain of knowing that these are here, of trying to decide if looking at them is worth one night of this madness. I can end this, right now. Take the option out of the equation completely. No more having these memories staring me in the face, just me and Morgan. No more of having this other ghostly memorabilia sitting around the house waiting to rot.
The fireplace looks too filthy to host Emma's cremation in, but I don't have time to waste if I want to get everything taken care of before Morgan gets back. He must be waiting for his baby teeth to fall out or something. Smiling at the thought, I lower myself carefully to the floor, simply happy at this moment to enjoy my last moments with Emma, combing carefully through the pictures while committing each detail to memory: the curve of her lips whenever she smiled at me, the way that a laugh would burst out of her and last until her sides hurt whenever she found something funny, the way that her head felt whenever she fell asleep on my chest…it's all devastating to recall, but I do it anyway, because after I let her ashes be scattered to the winds, I'll truly start feeling the freedom that my soul longs for, and yet the freedom that it runs from at the same time, always keeping it within sight, but never taking it firmly in my grasp. Looking at the old pictures of us, seeing our happiness bleeding from our bright, loving smiles, our gentle caresses, remembering the whispered promises that are worthless now…all of that makes the end about a hundred times harder to swallow, but it has to be done.
\ Holding the dancing flame from my lighter close enough that it almost devours the first, hardest picture, I wait, willing my hand to move. But my brain can't seem to get the message to the nerves in my hand, my gaze hypnotized inside of hers. Those eyes bore into me from this stupid picture with a power all their own, their warmth and beauty as stunning now as it's always been. Drowning hopelessly in the sea of feelings, I feel my hand drop, the flame flickering once before it dies completely, defeat swallowing me whole. I can't do it; I don't want to, not enough to throw these stupid pictures away and never look at them again, I want for this pain to go away, just like she did, then maybe I could stop feeling like this whenever I hear her name or see her face in a dream, and these pictures are a hundred times worse than any of that.
Rising slowly with the pictures still intact, I give Morgan a world-weary smile, asking him if he'd done as I asked before sinking back onto the couch.
"Shouldn't you be in bed?" I point out.
"I want to wait until Mr. Bobble gets out of the washer." Snuggling up close to me again, Morgan spreads a tattered old white-blue baby quilt with all sorts of woodland creatures wandering across a grassy meadow over us.
"You won't be able to have him until sometime this afternoon since I can't put him in the dryer." I say after a few minutes of silence.
"I know." he responds quietly, but the shadows in his face indicate otherwise.
"Have you ever spent the night away from home before, Morgan?"
"You've never had anyone invite you to a sleepover or something like that?"
"Well, is there anyone at school that you'd like to have over to the house?" Come on Kid; throw me a fucking bone here, would you?
"No." Well, we're back to square one, I think glumly, and with a bit of annoyance.
"Do you like school?"
"What about your art class; I'll bet that you're at the top of the class in there, huh?"
"I guess." Shrugging he pulls the quilt up more, his gaze on the silhouette of the door in the dark.
"Do you have any pets?"
"I'd like to try going back to sleep now, if you don't mind, Daddy?" His tone is biting, warning me of his impatience with my questioning, his eyes as cold as a glacier in winter.
"Not at all." I say, adopting the same expression.
"We can talk more tomorrow." he answers quickly, backpedaling.
"Yes, we can, and we will." Eventually, Morgan drifts off again, his head on my thigh while the rest of him is curled up like an armadillo and the quilt is slung over the rest of his body. At some point, I begin to doze off again too, my hand against his back, feeling the inhale and exhale of every breath that he takes. His hands find their way around my thigh, hugging it close as he flops over, lazy sleep mumbles rolling off of his lips.
"Please, don't go, Mama. I…don't…want you to go," his legs stretch out and then retract again, like he's running, little whimpers coming out from behind his teeth as the stretching motion turns into rocking, quick little thrusts where I'm able to feel the impact of his head hitting my stomach. "Don't go, Mama. Stay here…with me. Stay." That one word fades to little more than a whisper, a breath of wind, until it's totally silent once again. Still more than half-asleep, I manage to pat his back, my words lethargic.
"I'm staying with you. Staying."
A/N: Well there you go:) I don't know where the next chapter will pick up at, but I hope that you enjoyed it. Read/Review/Comment. Much love, Lunarlover:).