I’ve learned how to argue with nervous parents over rules. All it involved was a trick: saying the same thing over and over again in a soothing tone of voice. Sometimes I slide the bar further from ‘soothing’ and closer to ‘calmly authoritative,’ but it’s all pretty close.
Somehow around the fifth or twelfth iteration it suddenly clicks for him or her – whether it’s the actual reception of information or just the knowledge that there are certain things that no amount of wheedling – or threatening – will change.
I’m sorry, I know it’s difficult, but the director has asked me to ask you for a note from your doctor specifically stating that your child has an allergy. I know, I understand that the first note was from your child and he has very strong feelings, very angry feelings about gluten but we can’t accept a gift card from Target with crayon on it as a valid substitute for a doctor’s note. Well of course I think Taylor has promise as an artist. Of course he’ll grow out of wanting to be a garbage collector/dentist. You’re right, that isn’t a profession.
It’s always the same; one parent starts to look a little tired, while the other appears normal. Fast forward a certain amount of time, and one of them looks like his or her best friend died, and the other looks like a beautifully well-trained circus seal: plump and sleek and shiny, all over.
Sometimes the seal is a woman and sometimes it’s a man. I haven’t seen any great differential gap between who does the hurting and who gets hurt – between the jellyfish and the seal.
He crouched to look at the guinea pig. “So that’s Baxter, huh?” I tried to conceal the quick look of shock, but he saw it anyway. “Yes, Lola, some dads can actually still squat,” he smiled. “No, not that, I’m just surprised you know his name,” I said, feeling the colour creeping into my face, starting at my cheekbones. He noticed the blush, motioned towards the cage. “You have a tiny wooden sign with ‘Baxter’ written on it right next to the cage, Lola. I’d have to be much more tired, stressed and old than I actually am to not see it.” I nodded, in the usual way, where more of my head than my face is visual.
“That’s one tall drink of water,” she said under her breath. I looked up from the toothbrushes I was labeling. The director’s accountant looked as she always had; sort of school marm-y, eyes always on the page. I’d heard her voice but she gave no indication of having spoken. “Excuse me?” I whispered, assuring myself if she doesn’t seem to know what you’re referring to you can just say did you hear something? and then that will be it.
“You must not know the expression,” she answered, adding figures in some dark corner of her brain, pen moving continuously, eyes still down. “I’m saying that’s a damn good-looking man, Lola.” Her eyes met mine, narrowed slightly. “Haven’t you noticed?”
I shrugged a little. “He’s a dad, Darla, a dad . . . ”
“A hot dad,” she muttered, resuming her additions.
I never want to ask the unhappy couples if they’re okay. Sometimes I can’t help myself, the words come out and I feel like a fool but they’re out already and there’s no stopping the response. “We’re fine!” they tell me, us, whomever. “Never better!” “Great!” “Happy!”
And then one morning you see pink around their eyes, or the sunglasses never come off, but the wedding ring is off, and they’re too busy to say good morning.
Invariably the children’s clothing is rumpled, his or her hair isn’t brushed – and no one is happy I said this.
I wish I could tell John the stories I want to tell him. I guess I never say what I set out to say but most of the time I don’t really care, or else the rhetoric of work is basic and easy to follow.
I wonder how it is for people who get to know friends and then see their children, smaller fragmented reflections. I’m only used to getting to know the children until one day I see a smile – a walk, a casual mannerism – in the adult that I immediately recognize from the child.
It isn’t the sort of thing to talk about, but I feel my lips curving into a smile nonetheless.
“Just because you can reach the light bulbs with ease doesn’t make you into some sort of superior human,” I told him. He cocked an eyebrow at me. “Just leave them alone, Paco,” I wondered which tone of petulance was the right one to use, which one would remind him of his mother –
Right, I reminded myself. He never had one. Mostly.
“Your light,” he started, looking up at the ceiling fixture, “it wants to smash me in the head, and also I think it is dying.” I sighed. He thought everything was after him once he started drinking. My cheap light fixture? Murderous. His wife? Homicidal. The cows on the side of the road? Obviously plotting his doom.
“Come here!” he yelled suddenly, grasping the light bulb, then recoiling and sitting on the ground immediately. “Did you – did you burn yourself?” I asked, my mind jumping between Serves you right – I hope he’s okay! – What are the repercussions to a burned dad? quickly and repetitively. He wiggled his fingers. “Good thing I have this ice-cold beer!” he was cheerful again. I could relax. Mostly.
“Like I told you, Lola,” his grandiloquence – or imitation of it – was returning, “cold beer cures a multitude of sivels.”
The first time I saw him I thought only that he was very tall. I didn’t feel like meeting new parents – I had the most epically skinned knees from some good idea turned bad, had just returned from the doctor who had stopped just short of pronouncing me the most unmarriageable girl possible, and I don’t like it when only one parent shows up to the interview, especially sans children. They can tell you all they want about their kids as a description, but at the end of the day it can range anywhere from accurate to bullshit to complete delusion.
Anyway, he was tall, and he smiled at me as if we knew each other, so much so that I said “Do I know you?” just as the director asked him “Do you know our Lola?” and he shook his head. No, he didn’t know me, hadn’t met me, mouthed my name like I was a rare fruit. I sighed. I wanted no part of this. He came towards me with his brilliant smile – and neglected to see the plastic ‘gym’ at his feet. He fell head first, completely unprepared, and some little voice began yelling “Splat! Splat!”
I slipped out, still limping slightly. Like I said – I wanted no part of any of it, whatever it was.
Should I go to work tomorrow? I turn the thought over in my head, over and over, carefully, like a tangible thing.
Sometimes things end well by not seeming over. The unfinished quality can be a sort of crutch – a conversation that was left on pause, a discussion that was to be resumed, measurements still to be handed over, paint swatches to compare – a deposit, a guarantee. It’s easier, later, to roll all the intangible remaining bits up into a little ball that can sit somewhere until it dissipates.
Goodbye never does what it should, so I don’t say it. It doesn’t provide a pat ending – not even an ellipses. I’ll be there, at work, tomorrow, knowing that I’m about to be gone – temporarily, but far – and there will be no goodbye to create a false sense of urgency, of poignancy. No one will suddenly hijack what should be my experience to tell me that whatever form of transportation I take is the least safe, or how to stay alive five seconds longer if I’m set on fire. Hot Dad won’t start a hugfest that will vividly remind me of chiropractic work. Instead I will hear a long story about how a banana that was supposed to be eaten in the car has somehow made it all over the face, into the pockets, and smeared on the shirt. “Can you tell Miss Lola you’re so sticky?” Offending Parent asks, unaware that his or her child is mortified to be banana-smeared in front of teachers and peers.
The richer the parents, the more inept they are at feeding their offspring a banana. Fact.
I don’t know if I’ll go in tomorrow. My vacation has already technically started. My existing memories of bananas might prove sufficient.
I love my bed. It isn’t a big deal and can’t bear the weight of description but it is a bed and quite useful, chiefly for sleep but also for hiding. When I am in bed I inhabit a different state, like a principality inside a country – like the Vatican. My phone and laptop are turned off and there is quiet inside my own house even if the neighbors make an ungodly amount of noise.
But mostly it comes back to hiding, to the meaning of Easter break always including a parent who will show up at my doorstep with a frightened and confused child because the school, amazingly, was closed for the holidays that were announced a year in advance so obviously the next quite logical step was to hunt down any and all teachers at their private residences and assume one of them will care of a kid or two.
I can’t speak as to the exact circumstances of Havana’s youth, but she hides excellently. As if the entire species of cat were being hunted.