Monday morning, Thing One threw up at school so the secretary called me. Despite Ike's protests that vomiting wasn't that serious, I picked up the eldest monkey, took her home and spent the day with her. What became readily apparent was that she didn't have the flu--no fever or cough--and while her stomach was upset, she kept down soda and popsicles, and eventually a bagel. I could tell something was upsetting her by the way she stayed close all day, wanted to lay with me on the couch and watch me knit. Thing One is 8 the way other people are 21: she owns being that age and rules it with a kind of elementary-school confidence. So the mother need was unusual, though I thought it was likely just something more about the Girl Wars at school.
Then Tuesday night at dinner she broke. "Papa said he was going to marry Sara," she cried. "And that if Sara wants to, they'll adopt a baby."
There are a handful of times when I've been rendered speechless. This was one of them.
Thing One put her head down on her plate--empty because she had refused to eat much for the past two days--and sobbed. "Why does he need another baby?" she asked. "He has us. He has us."
There have been times when Things Two or Three get upset and cry about their dad, the divorce, any of it. And I've told myself that those times are hard because they lack the verbal acuity to voice their feelings. I realize now that isn't true. Watching Thing One grieve--she's the kid who, at 7, cried and said, "I want you to live together again, but I know you can't. And it makes me sad."--is a special kind of pain. I can't tell her everything will be alright because she knows better.
At the dinner table, I scooted my chair next to hers, put my arms around her. I rested my forehead on the back of her neck. At the nape her hair is still baby soft, thin and light and fragile. "I'm sorry," I said. It seemed like the only thing I could say that was true.
"I don't understand," she said. "He moved away from us."
"If they adopt a baby, then it will get to see him more than I do. And he'll like it better than us. He won't be able to help it." Thing One's chest heaved when she talked and her body shook.
Right then I wanted to hurt John. I wanted to shake him hard. Look at this, I wanted to tell him. Look. This is what responsibility fucking looks like.
John didn't admit to saying anything at first, though now he says it was all a side comment, nothing important.
Last night, I asked him to switch weekends with me, since I have something going on in late April. He agreed, but noted that I would need to take them two weekends in a row. "Well," I said, "you'll be here Easter, so I'll get a break anyway."
He was quiet.
"Because you and Sara are taking them out, right?" Last year, when we were going through mediation and creating a parenting plan, he had argued to alternate Easters. This was because last year, when I asked if he wanted to come over for Easter, he snapped at me. "I'm an atheist," he said. "Why do I care about Easter?"
It was dig against Jon, who was in seminary. When I made plans for Easter that didn't include him, though, he was angry and then sad. So he wanted to alternate the holiday, argued for it in mediation. And now it's as though he can't remember why.
"I'll be there for a few hours," he said.
"I know. I'm just trying to calculate how I'm going to do this without a break for two weeks."
"Well, I'm not taking them three weekends in a row. That wouldn't be fair."
Fair. The word stuck. Fair. I had just asked him if he could manage to pick them up early that Friday in April, at 5:00 pm. He had sighed, said he'd have to check with his boss to see if he could get off early, but he wasn't sure, and wouldn't know until maybe that week. Fair. The word doesn't carry any meaning with me anymore. Does he want to talk about fair?
Nevermind that he does not pay for their prescriptions or doctors' visits, though he promised to, and Thing One's asthma medication runs $95 a month easy.
Nevermind that he does not help cover their soccer registration fees or uniform costs.
Nevermind that he does not pay child support on time.
Nevermind that he can drop emotional bombs like "I might marry Sara and adopt a baby" and then leave without having to deal with the repercussions.
Nevermind that he never shows up on time for his weekends.
It was then that I realized that 5:00 pm is the time he's supposed to pick them up. That's the agreement. That's in the stupid parenting plan we made. And he's broken it for months now because he gets off work later than that, sometimes as late as 8pm. What's worse is that it has become so regular that I've allowed him to redefine the terms so that 5:00 pm is early. I spend every other Friday driving up to Portland to drop them off, or I hire a sitter so I can go to a reading, and then I drive them up Saturday morning. He drops them off early on Sundays too sometimes. I get 48 hours of child-free time every two weeks, and even that he tries to cut in on. "I appreciate you being so flexible," he says frequently. And I fucking let him get away with all of it.
This is what I do. I wouldn't let my friends get away with this, even my male friends. If Friend R were to ever pull something as crappy as this, I'd box his cute little ears and then I'd be done with him. I never have to worry about this, though. My friends are loyal and good and kind. They take care of me and they take care of me well. But while I wouldn't tolerate such behavior from my friends, the men I'm either romantically involved with, or were, somehow get carte fucking blanche. And part of the reason is that they're sort of emotionally crippled or something. They always seem unaware of what they're doing or what they've done.
The Nefarious Poet and I have been trying to repair our friendship, despite what happened at AWP. He said he wanted something "safe and manageable," and I missed him, missed just talking to him, missed that connection, the way he got me, understood me. So we started emailing. But his words stick the way John's do.
Safe? Safe? No one gets safe, NP. Who would want safe? No relationship, not even a simple friendship, is safe, let alone this one. And I don't want safe. It's not worth my goddamn time. And it isn't worth yours either.
Last weekend Tim-Tim told me, over dinner at an Italian place, that pouring anything more, even friendship, into the Nefarious Poet was useless. "He's like a piggy bank with the plug pulled out. Whatever you put in there isn't going to stick."
After NP sent me a photo of an ex-girlfriend making eyes at the camera for him, I began to see Tim-Tim was probably right. Like John, he doesn't know any better. It's fair and safe. Everything fair and safe. Fair and safe. Meanwhile, the balance goes on my account, it's my job to deal with the fallout, to deal with the repercussions, to hold up the illusion of fair and safe for these men. I can't do it anymore. And I don't want to.
(listening to a playlist which includes the not-oft combined "Irreplaceable," by Beyonce, "Chan Chan," from the Buena Vista Social Club Soundtrack, "Jackson," by Lucinda Williams, "Someone to Pull the Trigger," by Matthew Sweet, and "Black Sheep" by Martin Sexton, among others).