Friday, October 31, 2008

Red Light Special

They sat together the way they always do, looking like they’re a couple of 15 year old best friends (or lovers?) who got shrunk down to under 4 feet. He with his bright orange hoodie over his Catholic school boy’s uniform of navy and plaid and corduroys. She, because she had made a point to get taken home to change before the play date, in her favorite outfit, which is any outfit accented by her Hannah Montana patent leather and sequins flats and the matching purse—both accessories that he had handpickedly given her for her birthday a month back. They sat together the way they always do as if they’re not six and eights years old; as if I’m not actually there. Today the topic was more serious.

--I almost didn’t make it. Oh my god I’m so excited I made it!
--Why almost you didn’t make it?
--Cause my dad—I have to go to my dad today and we don’t know what time and he—
--You’re going there tonight?
--Maybe. Like, we don’t know what time. Like he—he says he’s coming one time and then he’s late or like he doesn’t come and then… He’s crazy. And you know why else he’s crazy? He calls and doesn’t talk to the babies.
--Why not?
--I don’t know—he’s crazy!
--But the babies are so cute!
--I know. That’s why I don’t like him too much. I mean I do but—
--I know. Mine is crazy too. Mine is even crazier.
--They’re all crazy-crazy-crazy.

They began to then discuss other things—an amalgam of his latest WWE wrestling news she didn’t really care about but listened to, and her latest girl-cousin drama he didn’t really care about but listened to. Then we got to the movie theatre and they watched High School Musical 3, enraptured. After the show we took her back to her mom who was stranded at the McDonald’s parking lot waiting for said “Crazy Dad” to show up. He was half an hour late when we got there. We waited for another 10 minutes with her. It all was very familiar: the being stuck waiting, the calling frantically, the humiliation of being you, a grown-up, your kid’s mother, and being stood up like that, by the same fucker who is never on time, who never seems to care about how humiliated you feel when you’re made to stand like this, looking stupid in front of your kid, stranded.

I told him that we should probably leave her and her mommy alone because “Her dad is about to pick her up and her mommy is stressed out because he’s late; you know how that is.” He knew how that was, so he gave his friend a big hug and I gave her mother a hug and kiss. We walked away and it was clear he was worried about his friend. At the first corner red light he said to me, “Her dad is crazy like mine.” I said, yes, looks like it. He then asked “Are there a lot of them, you know that act like this?”. I felt awkward and implicated and like I didn’t want to misrepresent something, neither the state of the world nor the state of their lives as children of fathers who won't be fathers. In real time, all I had was an honest answer: “I think so. That’s too bad but yeah, I think so.” We started to cross the street and I almost did not believe what he said next. I had to come to a complete stop on the other side of the street, and look at him to be sure. He was finishing the thought, he was looking up at me, and so yes, I was sure he had said it. What he had said as we crossed the street changed me in that way only what your kid says can changes you: profoundly but in a fleeting moment of the day. “I hope I don’t turn out to be like that.”

I think there wasn’t a question in the tone, maybe just a reticence, but that is what my son said to me he hoped. I told him that of course not, he would not turn out like that, that he already had not turned out like that. Look at how your friends love you, look at how I love you and your whole family loves you--it’s because you are such a good person. That won’t change—you’ll just be even better at it when you grow up. You care about people’s feelings and you don’t act crazy at all. You’ll be a great guy, I promise. (You were a better man than your father when you said what you said when we crossed the street but if I said that you right now you wouldn’t understand). Then I rushed us into the grocery store, into candy and cookie dough choices, into as much sugar and distraction as possible and by the time we came out of there, we were piecing together High School Musical 3 lyrics with “my favorite part was” snapshot reminiscences. And laughter had come, sweeping. Sometimes once he sees the truth my job is to walk him away from it fast because, I think, for him the truth is like the sun: he needs it to survive, but if it gets too close to him, parts of who he is burn and disappear forever.