I was a part-time father, so I clung desperately to every moment that I managed to get with Christopher. After our divorce, Marie met another man surprisingly quick, and she decided to remain with him in the small town of Lansing, just a few miles outside of Ithaca. I always found disquieting the cruel irony that my ex-wife, born and raised in Florida, ended up living with my son in my hometown. Buying a house with her new husband in nearby Dryden, Marie and my son now lived just fifteen minutes away from my own father. But, history repeated itself and, just like my Dad had done while I was growing up in town, he rarely, if ever, came to see his first grandson.
Whenever I was spending time with my son, I often found myself willing time to stop. I would stare at him as he played, as he ate, as he slept, especially as he slept, and I would try to record forever in my brain exactly how he looked and sounded and smelled at that very moment. I never forgot that his being a kid was terribly fleeting, and I wanted to store up as much of him as I possibly could before it was all over. Mostly, I just worked really hard to truly appreciate every second I had with Christopher. But, I no matter how hard I tried to appreciate him, he stubbornly kept on growing up.
As I pulled into the driveway of my ex-wife’s new home with Shane, I figured that it was more likely that I would find a way to stop time before I figured out a way to quell the dread that I inevitably felt whenever I came to this place. Even after four years, I still couldn’t stand the thought of her sharing her life with this guy. I trembled at the thought of what my son was learning by being forced to co-exist with Ozzie and Harriet Nelson inside that lifeless little house.
Shane was the son of Marie’s church pastor. When I first learned this, I wasn’t surprised one bit. But, it did bring rushing back to mind an incident Marie and I’d had in the car a couple of years into our doomed marriage. I had been driving the car, happily whistling along to Culture Club’s song Karma Chameleon. For whatever reason, I was in a pretty damned fine mood at the moment. In the middle of the song, however, Marie whipped her head towards me and snapped, “Why do you always have to whistle? It gets really annoying sometimes.”
I stopped whistling just long enough to snap back at her, “Fuck you. If you wanted to spend your life with a stick-in-the-mud, then you should’ve married one of those perfect guys from your damned church!”
“Don’t think I haven’t thought about it.”
From the very beginning, Marie and I were walking completely different paths. Fortunately for both of us, our paths crossed just long enough to reward us with Christopher.
When we were pregnant with him, Marie and I elected not to have a sonogram. We wanted the sex of our first baby to be a surprise. When the big day finally arrived, I was certainly surprised. But not because my wife gave me a son. Carolyn, our Lamaze instructor for the past several weeks, assured me that she had taught me “everything I needed to know” as an expectant father. She taught me how to assist Marie in her breathing, she taught me how to be prepared at all times for when we’d have to bolt out the door at a moment’s notice, she even warned me that Marie would more than likely say awful, out-of-character things that she didn’t mean during her labor. That last part, admittedly, I was looking forward to because Marie had always claimed piously that she had never uttered a single swear word in her entire life. I’d have paid money to hear her scream a nice loud “FUUUUCK!” as my son came slipping out like a slick new baby seal. Yes, Carolyn certainly taught me a lot. But for some ungodly reason, she never warned me about the smell.
I had not eaten nor slept for over eighteen hours by the time my son’s head crowned, so at the moment he squeezed out like icing from a pastry bag, I felt as though I had been slapped across the face with a dead fish. The stench was horrendous and I was wholly unprepared for it. The unexpected stench tsunami was followed by the appearance of the warm, fetid afterbirth.
It would have been a welcomed tip had at least someone thought to say to me, “Alright Papa-To-Be, you might not want to put your face down there so close to the action. Things are about to explode like the manhole cover on a backed up sewer pipe. It’s not gonna be pretty.”
But no one said a thing.
I soon recovered, however, and we took our new baby home to a beautiful, brand new, three-story apartment in Orlando that we couldn’t afford. For the next year and a half Marie and I struggled, fought constantly, paid frequent, desperate visits to the pawn shops and the instant loan stores, got scared, grew apart, stopped having sex with one another, packed everything we owned into a depressingly grey, unreliable Chevy station wagon and moved back to my hometown in New York State in an attempt to “start fresh.” But, still, we fought even more (only this time we wore parkas and snow-boots while doing it) and grew even further apart until finally, we called it quits and got a divorce, with Marie staying put with some guy named Shane and me fleeing back to the familiarity of Disney World, where I understood that freshly outted fags could find acceptance and safe asylum….and while this unfortunate shit storm was swirling recklessly around him, my son grew into an unbelievably adorable and keen little four-year-old.
Christopher had an awareness and a premature understanding of his family situation impressive for a kid so young. He seemed to accept the fact that Mommy and Daddy both loved him, but that they simply couldn’t live together in the same house. Hell, they couldn’t even live together in the same state. But, I figured that it made perfect sense that he would be as accepting of everything as he was. I often reminded myself to feel grateful that our separation happened when he was only a year and a half old. Because of this, our son had no memory of the unhappiness that the three of us had been living with. He had no memory of the times when I became so angry with him for standing at his crib rail at night and crying non-stop that I would lose my cool and fling the door open violently, slamming it hard against the wall, and yell at him “SHUT. THE. FUCK. UP!”
Fortunately, too, he had no memory of the evening that I came home from my miserable job as a cashier at the local Wal-Mart to find Marie sitting on the living room sofa, crying. I asked her what was wrong, and knew immediately that there was no turning back from the question. By the time dawn broke the next morning, we had decided to divorce after almost four tumultuous years of a limping relationship in which she had been struggling to find her God while I’d been struggling to find reliable places to hide my gay porn collection.
* * *
Whenever I went to see Christopher, I did my best to rent a car with a convertible top if one was available. I still debate whether I did this because I truly enjoyed riding around Ithaca with the top down, or because I simply wanted to look cool to my son.
I’d been relieved that Shane was still at work when I knocked upon the door and Marie answered. After an exchange of awkward greetings and a few tense moments of meaningless small talk, I finally had my son all to myself in the car. We sang along to the Teletubbies cd that I’d bought especially for this visit. I made an attempt to bookmark each visit with my son by introducing something memorable to him that might jog his memory years later when he had finally outgrown his desire to spend so much time with me. This visit it was the cd. Last time it had been a copy of The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery. On another visit it was the constant playing and replaying of the dance tune “Ass Up” by Baracuda. Although the unseemly lyrics commanded that you “put your ass in the air” I was able to easily convince my son that they were singing “put giraffes in the air.”
I drove down the winding, steeply descending part of highway thirteen that dumped us upon the southern tip of Cayuga Lake, at the entrance to what had once been my favorite childhood destination; Stewart Park. If I hadn’t turned right into the park’s entrance, we would have continued on into the heart of downtown Ithaca.
My hometown seemed like a truly magical place to me when I’d lived there as a kid. To my child’s eyes, it seemed at every turn there were rivers and waterfalls and deep and treacherous gorges just waiting to be explored. There was the shimmering expanse of Cayuga Lake that would invite me, no, lure me into the water, daring me to swim out to the floating dock where the pretty teenaged girls lay sunning themselves. There was Stewart Park in the summer where, after its long winter hiatus, the carousel would mysteriously appear out of nowhere and beckon to me to beg my mother for a quarter so I could ride it.
Mention Ithaca to an outsider, however, and most likely the first thing they will think of is Cornell University, one of the most famous and respected Ivy League Universities in the world. The campus of Cornell University is perched majestically atop East Hill, boasting enviable views of Cayuga Lake that stretch on for thirty miles or more. The old stone buildings and the campus’ prominent clock tower can be seen from nearly any vantage point from the town below. The buildings of Cornell were an impressive site to a young boy, reminding me of a medieval king’s castle, imposing and inaccessible, glaring dismissively down upon a village filled with lowly peasants and serfs.
Unknowingly, my own mother had reinforced my already developing opinion of Cornell as an aristocratic and privileged place by frequently spouting derogatory comments about the school whenever the topic arose.
“Those people up there think they’re so much better than the rest of us,” she scoffed. “How smart can you be if you’re spending thousands of dollars just to read books? You can do that at the library for free.”
I pulled the rental car into a spot in the parking lot that was on the north side of Stewart Park, nearest to the lakeshore. Christopher worked on unbuckling his seatbelt as I pressed the button to raise the car’s roof. He was excited to be at the park which was a wonderful thing to watch. I remembered the name of that feeling. Most would call it wonder. But I couldn’t remember what wonder had felt like. I regretted that something as simple as visiting a park didn’t excite me like that anymore. Even when I saw the old mystery carousel spinning happy riders on the backs of the very same brightly colored horses that I’d marveled at as a child, I noticed with sadness that the thrill was gone. All that was left in its place was an emptiness I couldn’t explain. Christopher saw me staring across the park at the merry-go-round.
“I wanna ride that, Daddy.” He said, pointing eagerly at the ride as he looked up at me.
“Who wouldn’t?” I said, feigning the glee that I was secretly wishing I still felt. I took my son’s hand and lead him to the carousel, where there was a line of parents and children waiting for their turn. The line wasn’t long and we were at the front before we knew it. The attendant at the gate informed me that it cost a dollar to ride the carousel.
“When I was a kid we could get four kids on for that price.”
The attendant met my remark with a half-hearted smile.
I lifted Christopher up onto the platform and watched him scamper away, sizing up all the options for his mount. There were always the horses, of course, with their shiny saddles and golden bridles, bits and harnesses. But Christopher seemed to be interested in the more unexpected rides, such as the majestic loping lion or the leaping cat with a freshly caught fish dangling from its mouth. He saw the pig and furrowed his brow, most likely thinking, Why the heck would anyone wanna ride a pig? Finally, he stopped at the foot of one of the horses after all, and said, “I want this one!” I walked over to him and heaved him up into the saddle, handing over the leather reins.
“Hold tight to these,” I told him. “Don’t want him to get away from you.”
“Daaad,” my son said. “This isn’t a real horse.” I’m pretty sure that if he’d known the word, he’d have added idiot. The attendant rang the bell to let us know that we were about to start. I threw my leg up and over the leaping cat alongside Christopher’s horse and took the reins.
“Giddyap!” I said for Christopher’s benefit as the carousel jerked and began to move. When I was my son’s age, the carousel ride had always seemed disappointingly short. But now, as we whirled passed the attendant for what felt like the fiftieth time, I found myself watching him closely, willing him to pull the damned lever and end this thing. I had to work hard staring at my hands to keep the slight feeling of nausea from escalating any further. Thankfully, after only two more laps, we slowly came to a stop and were allowed to dismount.
“That was fun!” Christopher said. “I wanna go again.”
“Once was enough,” I said, placing a guiding hand upon his back. “Let’s go take a rest under the trees over there.”
“But I’m not tired. I don’t wanna nap.”
“We don’t have to go to sleep. We’ll just sit there in the grass and relax for a little bit, how’s that?” Christopher nodded, but I could tell my plan didn’t sit well with him. Who comes to a park to relax? I found a shady spot beneath a tree and leaned back into the grass, my hands stretched behind my head. I patted the grass next to me and said, “Take a load off kid.”
“What does that mean?” He said.
“It means lay down next to me. Come on.” I told him, patting the ground again. He laid down next to me, putting his skinny little arms behind his head just like me. We stayed there in silence for only a few seconds before Christopher couldn’t take it anymore.
“I’m bored now.” He said. “What are we gonna do next?”
“No plans,” I said. “Just want to lay here and talk with you for a little while. Is that okay with you, Pickleman?” He laughed at that. He was still young enough to enjoy the stupid nickname that I had bestowed upon him on the day he’d been born.
“Why do you say Pickleman to me again, Daddy?”
“Because when you popped out, you were all skinny and long and wrinkly.”
“Like a pickle!” He remembered now.
“Exactly. Be glad you didn’t come out looking like a rutabega.”
“A comedic choice.” I said. Christopher shifted and sat back up again. I followed along and we gazed for a bit out upon the sparkling water of the lake. Every time I saw Cayuga Lake, I’d remember the story my mother had told me about how Grandpa used to own a boat and take the girls out onto the lake a lot. One day, he’d stopped the boat in the very middle of the lake, “Where nobody has ever found the bottom,” and he forced my mother and her older sister Elizabeth to jump out of the boat. Whenever I asked why my grandfather did that to them, my mother would say bitterly, “He liked to see us suffer.”
“So,” I said. “Who’s your best friend at school?” Making conversation with a four-year old was a skill that I felt I had mastered. As a performer on the streets of Walt Disney World, I met a lot of kids.
Christopher looked puzzled for a moment and then said, “You mean at Sunday school?”
Crap. That’s right. The kid hadn’t even started Kindergarten yet. “Sure, at Sunday school.”
“Well,” he thought. My son actually raised a pointed finger up beneath his chin in the universal pose that indicated Please wait a moment. I am thinking. After a few seconds he said, “Marcus is my best friend and then James is my second best one. James missed Sunday school two times so he isn’t as good as Marcus is.”
“What do you mean he isn’t as good?” I asked.
“Well, because you are supposed to go to Sunday school on all the Sundays but James didn’t come two times. Mommy said it’s prob’ly ’cause of his mom.”
That sounded like Maria alright. Her middle name should have been Judgmental. I couldn’t help but want to pick my son’s brain further. “What do you think of Sunday school?”
“I think I like it!” he replied happily. “We get to do fun stuff like make popsicle sticks outta crosses (I knew what he meant) and listen to Bible stories from Sister Foster.
“You call her Sister Foster?” I said.
“Uh-huh. Everybody at my church is a sister or a brother. Even Shane’s Daddy who is the preacher is a brother.” It rubbed me the wrong way hearing that my son was running around calling the adults in his life Brother and Sister. Somehow, it smacked of Jonestown to me. My son plucked a few blades of grass from the ground as he continued explaining his church to me. “Shane’s real brother, Brother Mike? He plays a guitar on the stage and Sister Beth plays the piano that’s really called something else I can’t remember…”
“Yeah. And Sister Beth is Shane’s mom but I still call her Sister Beth even though she’s my new Grandma now.”
New Grandma. That stung. But, hell, he’d never known the old one. My mother had only seen him once right after he was born, but when I’d caught her smoking a cigarette while he was asleep in her lap, I lost it. Although Marie kept telling me that “Christians forgive and forget,” I never allowed her to keep my son again without my supervision. Mom didn’t like this arrangement, so she eventually stopped asking to see him altogether. I didn’t spend a whole lot of time crying about it.
“Sister Beth is the best one about Jesus stuff,” Christopher said now. “She used to be a Sunday school teacher one time so she knows a lot of the Jesus things and tells them to me even when we don’t be at church. She tells me them at her house and at my house and sometimes even when we are in the car to the mall. She loves Jesus the best of everyone.” I knew about “Sister Beth.” She was a religious zealot and the thought of her having any influence whatsoever upon my son scared the shit out of me. I felt the anger rising in my gut, but suppressed it so my son wouldn’t see.
“What do you know about Jesus?” I asked him now, even though I was terrified of what I might hear.
“Jesus loves me,” he said. “Jesus loves everyone.” Then he looked directly at me and added, “He even loves you, Daddy.” I couldn’t help but laugh.
“That’s good to know.” I stated simply. I wanted to be done. But Christopher had other ideas.
“Do you love Jesus, Daddy?”
“I’ve never met him.” I cracked.
“Daaaad!” My son crowed. “Nobody has! But you are ‘posed to love him even if you can’t see him!”
I was tempted to try and explain to Christopher that while some people might believe in one thing, others might not. But then I reminded myself that he still enjoys the music of The Teletubbies and figured that guiding our conversation in that direction would be a mistake. Instead, I decided to divert his attention by suggesting a second ride on the carousel. He leaped up from where he was sitting with a holler.
“I’m gonna ride the pig this time!”
* * *
Our fun in the park was short-lived. Before I knew it, it was time to have him back. Even though I had a hotel room in town, Marie refused to allow my son to stay overnight with me. Maybe I was subliminally punishing her for that stupid rule by keeping Christopher out an hour longer than I’d said I would.
When I pulled the car into the driveway, Marie was standing outside on the front porch, her arms folded tightly across her chest. Before I could even walk around to open the door for Christopher, she’d marched down the front steps and over to me. She stopped me in front of the car.
“You said you were going to have him back by seven. It’s eight fifteen.” She snapped. She was clearly pissed. I took a little bit of pleasure in that. Suffer a little bit, you bitch. Suffer like I suffer for the other 345 days of the year. I pushed past Marie and went to open my son’s door. Marie turned and marched loudly back up her front steps to the porch. Marie turned and glared down upon me as I approached the steps a few feet behind Christopher. My son ran inside the house presumably to get something from his room that he really wanted to show me. “You broke your promise.” Marie spat at me. I remained on the sidewalk at the bottom of the steps, not wanting to come up. Perhaps this non-committal move would send her the clear signal that I didn’t intend to hang around and argue with her.
She missed the signal.
It was pretty obvious that my ex-wife had sat around all day rehearsing her angry diatribe and she was dead-set upon trying out her prepared material on this audience of one.
“You went against what we agreed upon,” she started.
“No,” I interrupted. “What you agreed upon. I never promised you a damned thing.” I could feel my blood beginning to boil as well as the sudden rush of poisonous adrenaline that flags the exact moment when I have a choice to make concerning how I am going to deal with any confrontational situation. My desire to even try to make the right choice was non-existent, so I rode the wave of what felt most familiar to me, and I blew up in her face.
“You might think you hold all the cards, Marie, but you don’t! Get off your high fucking Jesus horse because no matter what rules your little Christian brain can think up to make it hard for me, I will keep showing up because I am still his fucking father!”
“Do you talk like that around Christopher?”
“Hell no!” I said. Not the best response to support my case. “I only swear at you.” Just then the cell phone in my pocket rang. I wrestled it out to see who it was. Nick’s name stared back at me from the tiny screen. “Fuck me.” I groaned.
“Real nice.” Marie said.
“I only swear at you and Nick.” I said.
“I doubt the privilege is reserved only for us,” She said. She looked down at her feet and added sarcastically, “It’s good to know you’ve been working on your anger issues.”
“Don’t worry, Marie. I’ll always have a little anger especially for you.”
“You’re an asshole.”
“Careful, Sister Marie,” I said. “Don’t go all crazy with the cuss words. God’s watching.” We stood there in chilled silence for what felt like an eternity. Before it became completely unbearable, Christopher busted out the front door, slamming the screen door against the metal mailbox that hung on the wall. He bounced down the front steps and thrust an action figure up at me. I took it.
“Who’s this?” I asked him.
“That’s Moses!” He said joyfully. I glanced scornfully up at Marie and then back at the toy in my hand. Moses, indeed. It looked like Gandalf to me. Hell, maybe it was Gandalf and they were just telling him it was fucking Moses. I flipped Moses’ arm above his head and lifted him into the air.
“YOU SHALL NOT PASS!” I hollered gruffly. Christopher laughed. Marie scowled. Neither of them got the reference.