Josiah's tears were fat but silent, first glimpsed in the rearview mirror when Noel asked if he wanted to call Jamal before they arrived at Nana's. Rather than answer, he began to wail, and the volume of his wailing increased with every minute passed. By the time they were on Pinecrest Road, the final stretch of their short drive, the radio could not drown out his screaming and gargling and hiccuping. "What are you crying about, Jojo?" Noel repeated desperately, but Josiah whined and thrashed and coughed.
Noel pulled up his parents' driveway and parked, resting his head on the steering wheel before he yanked Jamal's keys from the ignition and climbed out of the car. He slammed the door behind him and basked in the sanctity of his own thoughts. Summer was still and quiet, the lull of cicadas and bright trees belying oppressive humidity and stinging heat. He inhaled deeply and walked around the little maroon Toyota, opening the door that released his son's fury onto the air.
The toddler kicked the passenger's seat and flailed his arms as broadly as his safety seat allowed, but he curled up so Noel could not unstrap him as soon as his father's hand was on the buckle. "No no no no!"
"Jojo, what's the matter?" Noel pleaded. He tapped both his knees, rubbed his chubby arms, kissed his forehead, tickled his neck, and tried not to scream back. Frustration grew like a lump in his throat, swallowed into his boiling stomach where it festered through his blood. Josiah shrieked, and Noel wrenched his legs from his chest, extracting him from the car in one rough jerk after undoing the buckle with his left hand. He kicked the door closed.
Stunned and stiff-backed, Josiah stuttered and gaped but did not sob. Noel started toward the door before he could resume his tantrum. They were safely inside and Josiah sat quietly and Noel called out their presence and had all four of their shoes lined neatly on the rubber mat before Josiah sniffled. He looked back at him and asked, "What's the matter?"
"I want daddy," Josiah muttered hoarsely. He sucked on his wrist, then his forearm. "I want to go home."
"You can call him. I said I would call him, Jo."
"I want daddy!" Josiah collapsed onto his side, hitting his head on the marble floor. Noel heard the impact. "I want to go home. I want to go home. I want daddy." He kicked Noel's ankle again and again. It did not hurt, but Noel ached with rage and impatience, barely tapered by Josiah's frailty. "I want to go home!"
Noel sank to his knees, took both Josiah's shoulders, and sat him on his butt. "No. Not right now." He did not try to reason with him. Reason was pointless. Babies didn't understand reason. "You can talk to him on the phone and that's it. Do you feel okay? Are you tired? Are you sleepy?"
Josiah shook his head but Noel knew better and hugged him close, crushing him in his arms, soothing his squirming and shudders. He smothered him chest-to-squashed-cheek until Josiah stilled, breaths slow and even, fretful eyes darting behind sticky lids.
"What happened?" Catherine asked. She eyed Noel sipping his coffee as if it were an herbal tea. He sulked like Allan, but Noel would deny any resemblance to his father, even when his brow drew tight with identical lines. Noel's were finer but would deepen like Allan's, worried creases. "Or are you not going to talk to me? You're really not going to want to talk when Allan's here."
"I'm not a child."
"Then stop acting like one." Catherine sat across from Noel and regarded him: the way he half-slumped over the heavy oak table, weary. "You're being petulant. What happened?"
"Of course you fought. What about?"
"Nothing." Noel rubbed his temples and knew he was speaking in fallacies. Catherine could see it on his quivering mouth. "We fought about nothing. He came home and said he had left Willow with his mom. I said, very politely, that I would like Willow to be home for the weekend, and he said she never gets to see her grandma, which is true. It is true she sees you and Dad more often, but he had to be so... vile about it. I wasn't trying to insult him or his family, I just wanted her to be home because we had the dinner planned with you for tomorrow night. I had already told him about the dinner, weeks ago actually, but I suppose he might have forgotten, but it just seemed spiteful. And then he said that Josiah missed me, which is his way of saying I'm not there, which I am there. I am there as often as I can be. It's not my fault I work—"
"Sorry. It's not my fault I work more often. I make most of the money. I gave him his lifestyle, and he thinks I'm looking down on him for it. I'm not. I'm not." Noel wrung his hands together. "He stopped drinking."
"Years ago, I know."
"Yeah, well, he stopped drinking, and I know Josiah loves him, and I know Willow's her daddy's girl, but I have to hold everything together. I am always the bad guy. I am always being arrogant, I am always too apathetic, but I am always coming apart. I am always The Problem. The Big Problem. He can be cruel, he can be late, he can—" Noel slammed his mug on the table, sloshing lukewarm liquid. It stained the cuff of his milky shirt. "He can be anything, but I'm the The Big Damn Problem. Josiah didn't even want to come with me. Jamal's screaming his head off, and Josiah still wants to stay with him, throws a fit about it. Willow wants to stay with him, too. I hold the family together. I hold it together. Catherine, you know I do."
"Children aren't rational, Noel." Catherine rested her hand on his, brushing her thumb over his knuckles, and he looked through her, sizing up the cabinets that had not changed since he was a child. Pinewood, stained darker. "It took you years to like me and years more to forgive me for marrying your dad, even after your mom stopped calling."
"You held the family together," Noel sighed, weary.
Jamal called after dark, when the moon was hidden behind a bed of dark violet clouds. Drowsy, Noel found his phone with one blind hand, his other arm around the sleeping bundle of Josiah. They were in the guest bedroom that smelled of cleaning fluid and forced aroma, something like a sterile garden. Perhaps lavender in a hospital room. "Hello?"
"Are you coming home?"
He always managed to sound broken, and Noel wondered if he had been sitting alone all night. He might have gone out with a friend, maybe that blond he was fucking. Noel did not comment because he was fucking a man he'd met at a work luncheon. "Not tonight."
"Please. I love you, Noel. I'm sorry. I overreacted. I'm so sorry."
"Okay. Just. Josiah's asleep? Is he okay? I'm sorry, I really am sorry, so sorry..."
"Are you tired? You sound exhausted, baby. I—"
"I'm very tired."
"Just... come home tomorrow. Please. That's all I'm asking. Even if it's just to talk. Come home tomorrow. We have been through so much, and I appreciate you, Noel. You know that, right? I appreciate you."
"Okay. I'll come tomorrow." He hung up and slept fitfully, remembering the first night he'd fallen asleep twined with Jamal, when he always smelled of booze and his apartment was Noel's second home rather than his first.