Fractures and Repair
My ex-wife works odd shifts and sometimes has mandatory overtime. I work midnights, mostly welding, sometimes building scaffolding with the carpenters.
“You’re a sweetie,” my ex-wife says when she drops the kid off unannounced at six in the morning when I’m getting ready for bed. “You’re a sweetie,” she says at noon or one or two, when I’m sound asleep, my drapes pulled tight like I’d welded them shut.
She stands above my bed now, not touching me, our son by her side.
He’ll turn four in March.
I think I love him more now, after the divorce, if it’s possible to love something you helped make more than the moment he came to life. When my ex-wife and I started talking about separating, I felt a surge of love, of parenting. I could see my son completely because I no longer had to look at my wife. It was like finding a compass without having realized you were lost. My wife said, “Do you hate me?” I loved her more too. I suggested we skip the lawyers and divorce ourselves. I contacted the bank and the woman on the phone explained how I could sign over the house and I drove out and did the paperwork. I asked my wife how much she wanted in child support and she raised a reasonable number. We did the rest with a notary.
I try to open my eyes and they are heavy as steel.
My ex-wife says, “There’s your daddy,” in a lollipop voice.
My son says, “Wake up, daddy,” in a lollipop voice but like he loves lollipops.
“I know it’s early for you,” my wife says.
“It’s okay,” I say, still blind.
My son says, “Mommy said you’d wake up.”
“You are so right,” I say.
You wouldn’t believe how small my apartment is, that a grown man could live here, but two rooms and a toilet is like living on a cruise ship or a tropical island from the movies where only sunshine and perfect weather happen when you’re used to a house with banging doors and burned-out light bulbs and an understocked refrigerator and a bathroom sink that leaks into a pot everyone forgets to dump. The apartment is mine, rent paid from my bank account, from my paychecks, and I would buy it if they would sell it, if I could afford it. Inside the cramped space I am able to parent however I want, with bedtimes and regular meals and a lamp by a mattress on the floor so we can read Knuffle Bunny. My son and I do not play video games. I only give him my phone when I am exhausted and blind from sparks.
Right now he pushes me in the thigh, strong, and I make an obnoxious snoring noise.
I think sometimes I should file for sole custody and allow my ex-wife to take the kid whenever she wants but the language would hurt her feelings.
Feelings are strange, how they bond and separate.
When my ex-wife can’t reach me, she calls my mom.
My mom makes my ex-wife feel bad.
My mom makes me feel bad.
I never knew my dad. He bailed and my mom said he would regret it the rest of his life, not knowing his son, but she never chased after him or tried to track down child support. We think he moved to Alaska. He liked to fish and no lawyers will fly there.
My mother believes divorce is a sin.
My ex-wife and I consider it a miracle.
“Thank you,” my ex-wife says. “I’m sorry I didn’t have time to feed him.”
Some people are good at love, the feeling, and other people are good at love, the action. I want somehow to do both and not consider what other people do at all, to step aside from judgement and shame, to remember to grocery shop and divvy up the groceries.
“I’m glad you’re here,” I say.
My son climbs in bed with me, under the covers, not to cuddle but to attack. He loves to attack, to roughhouse, to wrestle and brawl.
He wears a Spiderman costume all year, making twip sounds when he pretend-fires webs from his hands. Sometimes he stands on my back to better climb the walls.
My ex-wife says, “Are you sure you’re okay with me having a key?” and she shifts feet, guilty, maybe a little ashamed. She says, “I could call. I could text. I could knock really loud.”
She was thirty-three when we got married. I was twenty-seven. She’d been a hairdresser and a waitress and she’d started taking classes for nursing at the community college on the North Side. I’d been a welder for almost five years. She dated a guy in a dart league. The guy had a tattoo that said: it’s a good day to die. I looked around and found a moment to punch him. My ex-wife, who was my new girlfriend, said, “I can’t believe I dated that loser,” and I said, “Yeah,” and continued to ice my knuckles. I lived with my grandmother, my nona, who’d lost part of one leg to diabetes, who’d gone blind, a woman I loved and dreaded bathing. She met my girlfriend who would become my wife then my ex-wife and said, “She’s beautiful.” She held my girlfriend’s face in her hand like it was the world and said, “She’s your bride.”
My ex-wife says, “What if I came here and you know…” and she dangles the key so I could grab it if I wanted it back.
My wife dates.
She dated while we were still married, one of the reasons we divorced, not so much her infidelities but my lack of jealously. I lost the desire to punch people.
She worries she’ll bring the kid into our apartment and I’ll be in bed with a woman but I love sleep. I love having a bed to myself, using both sides. I like being single. No offense to women, I just never understood the female clock, the quick shifts in time and emotion. In welding, you a make a bead, a line to hold other pieces of metal together. I drag my beads into perfect strings. I could never do that with love, with romance.
I go to the park and I go to the play areas at the mall and I pick up my son from playdates and I hear women talk about men, their boyfriends, their husbands.
They say, “He, he, him,” then make an accusation, then laugh or scowl.
I think they are confused.
Some of us are no good at what we want to be good at.
I did my best, I failed.
“What do you think of…?” and they name a man.
“What do I know?” I say. “I’m a welder.”
They keep talking.
Their complaints never sound like confessions.
I failed my marriage.
I never learned the difference between listening and hearing.
“I don’t know,” I say to the women who complain to me, then I tell them the truth about my wife, that she is a brilliant and hard-working mother, and we love our son together, one love that circles three people, and they say, “Ahh,” and I say, “It’s not supposed to be sweet,” and they say, “Yeah, because your wife was a whore,” and I say, “No,” then I tell them again that I am a welder, which they like to hear, that I can lift heavy things and balance fire, a confession that sounds like incompetence or failure, misunderstanding, but when I say welder, I mean religion, I mean god, god like I was raised with, an absolute.
I want the world to be like that: fractures that can be repaired.
My ex-wife says, “Does your mom have a key?”
I say, “My mom has a key.”
“Gross,” she says. “Then I should have a key.”
“Exactly,” I say.
She wears scrubs but her make-up is perfect and her brown braid is long enough that she pulls it forward so it rests on her shoulder. She’s lost twenty-five pounds since the divorce. She does yoga with other women from the hospital. “They all hate their husbands,” she said. “But I love my ex-husband.” I thought about that and said, “Everyone should get divorced,” and she said, “Stop it, you big meanie.”
Now she drops the key in her purse.
My ex-wife leaves.
My son digs his toes into me and laughs as I try to block his feet.
“Die you big dumb bird,” he says, meaning the Vulture, Spiderman’s arch nemesis, a guy who ran a junkyard until a rich superhero put him out of work.
I always play the villains.
My son rises up and goes for my throat.
“That’s it,” I say, and swoop up and fly down.
My son loves to be landed upon.
I say, “You want eggs or you want chicken?”
“Chicken,” he says. “Mom’s working. You work at night and never sleep.”
“I sleep sometimes,” I say.
“I like to stay awake,” he says.
I would change that if he stayed with me during the week.
“Can we play before we chicken?” he says.
“You bet,” I say. “To the mall, you do-gooder, the play area awaits us, as does chicken nuggets and a juice box.”
The mall opens early but the food court doesn’t open until nine. We play at the Mister Rogers play area for almost an hour. No other kids are here. Everything is made of molded foam that has been shaped and painted into the landmarks of a TV show for children. We drive the trolley. My son climbs the tree and talks to the owl. He runs through the castle and down the slide and under the bridge and up the slide and down the slide and jumps the oversized mushrooms and sprints back into the castle. I chase, I jump, I lift him, we spin. We meow at Henrietta Pussycat. My son makes frantic loops.
I am out of breath by the time he admits to being hungry.
I hear my name, first and last, but assume it is not my name. The words come again, closer, but I am careful not to lose my place in line, hoping the old retired men will hurry with their coffees and the cream and sugar they dump into Styrofoam cups crowing with chicken designs.
The woman in front of me has a kid, knee-high, bouncing.
The woman behind me has a kid, knee-high, bouncing.
Whole worlds exist without you knowing about them until you have kids. There are places to play in every corner of every town and some of them are free and all of them are close to places where kids want to eat chicken and drink juiceboxes.
The woman behind me says, “Please stop,” and her son bumps into me.
I turn and smile.
“I’m sorry,” she says, looking exhausted, sweat beads cutting through her make-up.
“Not a problem,” I say and turn back around.
The line moves.
My son bounces, he lunges, he laughs.
He points and daddys.
The kid behind says, “Mommy, let go,” a last-ditch demand.
I step forward, another pace.
I swing my son forward like a yoyo.
He stretches for the nearest gumball machine which does not hold gumballs but toys and rubber balls, one dollar a turn. In under a minute you can crank four times and get two rubber balls, a misfire, and sticker so different than the one your kid wanted it will make him cry. Four cranks on a gumball machine selling toys is the price of an adult sandwich.
The cruelty of money is most apparent once when you’re a parent.
I start to order and have to lift my son to my hip to keep him from crashing the counter. It’s amazing more men aren’t mothers. We are strong enough to toss children anywhere then wear them like backpacks, like baskets that have been overstuffed. We show love by lifting.
The cashier, sensitive to adults with small children, hands the coins then waits while I deposit the coins in my pocket with my one free hand. We do the same with the bills and receipt.
I thank her profusely each time.
Right before I turn from the cashier, I hear my name again, first and last, then a voice saying, “I thought that was you.”
I gather both bags of food and move to the food court, the empty spaces.
This sounds stupider than I mean it to: the voice belongs to my high school girlfriend.
My high school girlfriend’s name is Karen.
Her parents both had K names.
The dad worked and probably still works for Google, doing whatever computer people do there. The mom is a therapist. She wasn’t practicing when I was in high school, when I’d never heard the word therapist, when I hanged out in her finished basement because my own mother wouldn’t allow me to have girls over and be alone, not even in our living room that she constantly passed through. Now, everywhere I drive, I see my high school girlfriend’s mom’s name on billboards advertising relief from mental health issues. One of the billboards sports her picture, a perfect headshot. I adored my high school girlfriend’s parents. They had a kitchen filled with food and snacks, a refrigerator filled with cans of brand name soda and not two-liters of no-name cola. “Be good down there,” they’d say, as we walked the stairs into the basement with a couple rented movies we’d never watch. They trusted completely then ignored all violations of trust. They seemed like royalty, like a King and Queen, mom in yoga clothes and dad with his shirt untucked, resting on the couch in another TV room, the one where their daughter didn’t wear short skirts without panties and quietly ride me. They sipped glasses of wine and flipped channels, they presided over their kingdom, tired and kind and happily oblivious to lives not their own. When their daughter drove me home in their car, they waved and wished me a good night.
Karen, my high school girlfriend, says, “Harry,” my first name, like an exclamation point.
My son still hangs on my hip.
I am thankful for his wildness.
Karen says, “What are you doing here?” but broader, almost spiritual, huge smile, karma.
I go small and say, “Getting breakfast.”
I know she went to college, what that means.
I’m proud of my story, the work I do, but I know how it makes college people feel. “A welder? But you were so smart? Why didn’t you go to college?”
I’d hoped to never see Karen again, not because she’s Karen but because she attended my high school and I’d hoped to never see high school people again because they are high school people. If I wanted to throw a beer can into my life, I’d do it myself with no help from the past.
Karen says, “I live in Denver.”
“That’s great,” I say, matching her charm.
She says, “I still get home a lot to see my parents.”
“I see your mom’s picture on the therapy billboards.”
“Yeah, she’s going really good for herself.”
“That’s great,” I say.
“What about your mom?” Karen says. “Is she still…” and she drops the questions.
“She’s still catholic,” I say, joking for the truth.
“Good,” Karen says. “I go sometimes.”
“Sometimes. I like the music. It’s a peaceful place to think.” She pauses, thinking of masses, maybe thinking of masses she never attended or ones she needs to attend in the future, maybe thinking of my mom, who believed—who believes—abortion is murder, my mom who found a note in my jean’s pocket, a note from Karen saying she thought she was pregnant.
My mom didn’t tell me she found the note.
She neither complained nor forbid, her two main parenting moves.
She waited until Karen picked me.
She waited until Karen pulled into our driveway, driving her parent’s old car, a fairly new Subaru she inherited when her parents wanted to buy a Mercedes, then my mom raced from our house. She sprinted down our three porch steps, across the walk, then cut through the grass and around the car. My mom never ran anywhere. I followed out of instinct. Without any explanation, I understood what was happening. My mom had the note in her hand, the one I’d never seen so the one I’d never responded too.
What a word for teenagers to hear: pregnancy.
It always sounded like cancer.
My mom smashed the note to the driver’s side glass.
“Whore!” my mom said.
Then she said it three more times.
“It’s not true,” Karen said.
Karen said, “It was a joke. I was just kidding.”
Karen said, “I got my period.”
“Whore,” my mom said, but I was between her and the car, shuffling her away.
Inside the car, Karen cried and snotted and tried to speak, quietly, respectfully, like she’d been raised. She rolled down the window and tried making defenses.
“You’re a whore,” my mom said. “You preyed on my son.”
I took the note, casually, like I was relieving my mom of a knife.
“I’m not a whore,” Karen said, but like a question, like maybe she’d been confused.
My mom, the rage subsiding, embarrassed, humiliated for having humiliated a teenager, straightened the short jacket she wore, the matching piece to the skirt she put on in the morning to go to work at the perfume counter she managed inside Kaufmann’s department store.
My mom said, “Well, stop acting like a whore if you aren’t one.”
When she came home from her job, I wanted to sneeze. She smelled like flowers grown in test tubes and vanilla beans made of metal.
I tried to steer her back to the house.
I said, “Go inside, Mom, please.”
But she stayed, glaring.
Karen dug through her purse. She pulled out a tampon and held it out the car window, crying, not making eye contact, looking past the steering wheel and through the windshield to our old single garage, the white paint chipped to green primer and wood. She dropped the tampon on the driveway. She went back in her purse and pulled out a pad and dropped that on the driveway too.
Karen said, “I’m sorry. I was joking,” still not looking at my mom.
“It had to be said,” my mom said, fixing her hair like a wig that could be adjusted.
She walked in the house.
Karen looked at me and said, “It’s not true,” which was true, she was not pregnant, not since she told her mom, the therapist too tired from mothering to practice therapy, who drove her daughter to the clinic and did the talking and the paperwork. Karen bled as we spoke. She wanted me to touch her later that night and it felt different and when I stopped and looked, blood covered my fingers. It was on my hand and thick as mud.
The night before she attacked Karen for being pregnant, my mom made lasagna, my favorite meal, and she bought bread from Delallo’s, a fancy Italian store, even though she considered Delallo’s overpriced and lacking in sincerity.
I said, “What the occasion?” shoveling lasagna in my mouth.
She said, “It’s not always easy being a boy.”
I cut up the bread.
I covered it with butter, not margarine.
Whoever was supposed to plan our tenth high school reunion didn’t bother. Someone else took over and took the charge seriously. I’d not been on the list for any of the reunions but an old friend, Sinja Kleese, the only girl who took shop classes, tracked me down.
She said, “Come to the reunion, it’ll be fun.”
I said, “I’m not even considering coming to the reunion.”
She said, “I knew you’d say that,” and laughed.
Somehow, after high school, Sinja lost her desire to make wooden shelves and metal mailboxes and screenprint t-shirts and gained a desire for more school, for a liberal arts education. She decided she wanted to make graphic novels and college was the place for that to happened. She applied to Penn State and ended up in classes with Karen and they stayed friends for years. Karen finished with a degree in physical therapy, bending knees and shoulders like her mom bends minds. Sinja published a comic strip on the internet and probably still does.
On our phone conversation, Sinja said, “Karen can’t have babies. She blames it on the abortion she had back in high school when you two were together.”
“I probably didn’t need to know that,” I said.
“Is it okay I called you?” Sinja said. “Probably not, huh?” She said, “I’m getting gossipy as I get older, I hate it.” She said, “I guess you know I’m a lesbian now.”
“I knew that back in high school,” I said.
“Me, too,” she said.
Sinja and her partner have a baby now, a little boy.
It’s almost impossible to not hear the news of where you have always been.
Their little boy is very cute.
I don’t introduce my son, who now holds one of our bags of food and pulls chicken nuggets out and stuffs them in his mouth. I don’t introduce my son because I know what Karen will say, some version of it, some teardrop or scream.
I will be thirty-four next summer.
Karen is thirty-four now, I think, her birthday just passed.
I am a version of a version of a version to infinity of myself, of my high school self.
I do not know what version Karen is, or what her infinity means.
My son, still on my hip, a wad of nugget in his cheek, says, “Get a table by the pony, please,” meaning across the food court where the mechanical horses and spaceships rock.
I start to walk there, balancing.
Karen says, “Is that your son?”
“It is,” I say. “He’s almost four.”
I lower my son from my hip and take the food bag.
I hold his hand like a leash.
“I don’t blame you,” Karen says.
She stops speaking.
I stand still.
I do not know if she knows what I know about her body, how it will not make a baby.
“Are you okay?” I say.
She pulls the muscles tight in her face and neck like she can flex the sadness out of her appearance and it works for a second. She finishes her flex and opens her eyes and she is composed, an adult woman seeing an old friend.
Then she is not composed.
Then she is worse than not composed.
She gasps for breathe. She wipes her eyes, trying to protect her make-up from melting but smearing it instead. I pull a napkin from the food bag but grease stains splotch the paper. I hold it in my hand, not offering. Karen says a half word and snorts it back into the chaos of her face.
She breathes deep and straightens her body and calms herself again.
She holds up one finger to buy a moment.
“I don’t blame you,” she says, this time adding, “But how can I not blame you?” and she starts bawling, high school bawling, and she wears the tears like the rest of her face is a put-on, like her only true face is a smear of tears.
I release my son’s hand, knowing he will run.
“I’m sorry,” I say, meaning my son, how I need to chase him, and I go.