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I Would Go Home, But There Are Kids There
First of all, I'm not really a stepparent. As my own children like to point out—you have to be married to be a stepparent. I guess that makes me more like the babysitter for the offspring of my live-in Man Toy. Every other week I help feed them, dress them, entertain them, provide taxi service, and listen to endless pre-school and tween drama-queen prattle.
Before Man Toy, I was alone with my own children much of the time, which meant I had to run a tight ship. My ex-husband was a member of corporate America with a position that kept him away from home for months on end. When we divorced, not much changed in the house. We had a downright soporific routine. After everyone was home, we would get snacks, chat, do homework, eat dinner, and the kids would play quietly until bedtime. I prided myself on providing a calm, restful environment for my children, and—even if they didn’t want calm and rest—screw them; they should pay the mortgage.
I teach at the local college, so I would frequently sit in the living room with a bottle of wine and grade papers, work on lesson plans, or answer emails. The kiddos would drift in and out for brief conversations, to request help with little tasks, or ask for a snack. They rarely fought, and when they did it was over quickly. They knew I would banish them to their rooms—despiser of cacophony that I am. After the kids were in bed, I would do laundry, clean up the dishes, pack lunches, and read before bed.
The TV was never on. We don’t even have cable. When the kids had friends over, I would hide in my room with a book and only emerge when summoned by hungry bellies or skinned knees. I didn’t teach on Fridays, so I was alone in the house frequently. I relished the quiet, the absolute joy of wandering from room to room staring in rapturous wonder as I returned to a previously-visited spot to find it STILL clean with nary a child to despoil my housekeeping efforts.
Even if it weren’t always as simple, clean, and pretty as my recollection, the point is that I remember it that way. All the mundane, soul-slaughtering loneliness fades in comparison to the old-west-style dirt devil of whiny, demanding, overbearing unreasonableness that is my every-other-week new world. What can I do in response to this assault on my previously placid environment? The answer is—um—nothing. There is a certain—not comfort—but, perhaps, purpose to the chaos. I have no doubt that in aggregate I’m happier and so are the kids. That doesn’t mean it’s always easy or even welcome. That’s just unrealistic.
So you, my friends, will come along with me on this journey. You don’t know me, and there are no developing egos or romantic attachments to protect. I will be brutally honest with you. I will tell you the things that no one wants to hear but that I need to say. I hope that some of what I say resonates and doesn’t offend.
Read at your own risk—I’m not nearly as nice as the people around me think I am. It is only carefully practiced self-control that masks my true super-bitchy identity. I wouldn’t say these things to children—mine or anyone else’s—but I think of them and smirk. I hope that when I confess what’s in my smut-strewn, trailer-trash gray matter, you decide to laugh instead of paying a stranger with a semi-automatic weapon to hunt me down. Enjoy.
No, I don’t really think of him as a toy, but early on – around about the time we decided to not get married (ever…no really, ever…stop asking me when we’re getting married) – we had a crisis about how to refer to one another. The words “boyfriend” and “girlfriend,” he said, didn’t have the ring of permanence. That could be why my subsequent suggestion of “fuck buddy” was so quickly shot down.
We were stuck for a while. The gays have already co-opted all the good non-marital relational-definition words. “Domestic partner” and “Significant Other” are formal and clunky anyway. I tried out “partner.” As in, “How much would it be for my partner to join the gym as well?” After a sometimes barely perceptible smirk I would either get, “Oh. SHE can join for $49,” or “What kind of business do you two do?” It didn’t take me long to figure out that anyone with a “partner” is gay or fronting an LLC.
We moved on for a while – trying out different monikers. There was Co-Domestic Engineer - very descriptive with the perfect amount of egalitarianism - but hard to work in to a sentence. Perhaps because of his love of horror movies, Man Toy’s favorite was C.H.U.D. Fans of the 1984 cult classic will remember this as Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dweller. We, however, were Co-Habitating Urban Dwellers. It’s a title that’s hard to take seriously. It’s not like you can pull it off at a cocktail party. “Well hello, esteemed colleague. Did you have a chance to check out that conference in Chicago? No? Too bad. Oh, by the way, I’d like you to meet my C.H.U.D.” I can only imagine the blank stares and rumors about my sanity. Plus it leads to a lot of “eat me” jokes.
Other names we – or I – have tried: “The one I live with in sin,” “That guy I shack up with,” “What’s his nuts,” “My whateveryoucallit,” and the fallback “The girls’ dad.” It’s clear that there is a cultural, semantic disconnect here. Whatever I call him, he is the reason for so much of the happy chaos in my life. He is the only person I’ve ever met who has fulfilled so much potential and sees in that fulfillment so many failings. Humility is an understatement. He refuses to celebrate the incredible achievements he’s made, but is quick to berate himself for every small “failure.”
He is the guy who is educated, thoughtful, and passionate. He is adventurous, kind, and harder on himself than anyone else would ever dream of being. He will chide himself for weeks for losing his patience with a 4-year-old. The rest of us understand that Mother Theresa became a nun so she would never have a 4-year-old of her own. Small children have a way of ruining your chances of sainthood. If you think about it, it’s a smart move on the part of the Catholic Church. Make them all celibate - if you never have parental or romantic relationships, it’s easy to be a saint. Children make you understand infanticide. I didn’t say they make you DO IT – just understand it.
My CHUD is also the guy who will spend his weekend planning a dance party for his 9-year-old’s birthday (complete with nine of her squealing friends). He will drive all the way to work on his day off to check out a projector for psychedelic party videos and have glow bracelets, necklaces, and beads for each mini club-hopper. He’ll download a music-mixer and all the girls’ favorite artists just to see the looks on their faces for the 15 minutes that the music holds their attention.
He’s the guy who has a 2nd degree black belt in Combat Hopkido and started as a novice in Jiu Jitsu because he was bored. The guys who endures a 10K obstacle course with 25 pounds of bricks on his back just to see if he could do it. He’s the guy who paints amazing, beautiful pictures and has sold more than 200 internationally. He is also an Information Technology Supervisor whose zombie movies I am listening to in the background as I type this. On what planet do these things go together? On what planet am I lucky enough to have this wonderful man in my life? Wherever I am, it feels like home.
“Daddy Who?” and I met in college. He was a dirt-poor, strapping senior from a broken home doing the last two years of his BA as a transfer student from a Southwestern military college. I was a sub-dirt-poor freshman from a less-than-desirable home and zip code. We understood each other immediately, although initially I didn’t like him.
We met doing work-study at our university’s bowling alley. At the time, he was in the middle of a nasty divorce from his first wife – a fellow military officer deployed to Korean who found much more to appreciate about Koran culture than the food. He was understandably bitter and dejected. In my 18-year-old mind, however, he was just a jerk who wouldn’t make decent conversation during our never-ending shifts together at the bowling alley.
I think I tried to talk to him for a week or two and then gave up in favor of doing the crossword puzzle in the university-run student newspaper. Turns out he was often doing the very same crossword. We compared notes for a while and eventually moved on the comparing … ahem…other things. As it turns out, lots of teenage sex is a great way to put your “starter marriage” in perspective.
Daddy Who? wasn’t the most motivated, liberal or thoughtful person I had ever met, but he was cute and he had charm. The first time I ever saw him, he was getting off the service elevator in the student union. He was so tall, that he had to duck and extend his legs out in front of him to avoid decapitating himself as he exited. I later told him that it reminded me of the scene at the end of Aliens when the extraterrestrial menace disembarks from the shuttle ship, legs first, and you don’t even see the thing’s head for a full 20 seconds. He laughed.
The fact that he got my twisted sense of humor gave him definite bonus points. In the early days, I rarely remember being in his presence without laughing. He was quick-witted, playful, and adventurous. We got married after he graduated. I was a junior in college and he a newly minted 2nd Lieutenant in the US Army. This was in the mid 90’s. It was the middle of the Clinton-era military drawdown that coincided with the ramp up of military/humanitarian missions. The pace was brutal.
Our first assignment was to Fort Campbell, Kentucky. While I finished my BS in communications and business, Daddy Who? took on responsibilities way beyond his maturity level. At 24 years old he was assigned staff duty. That basically means you patrol the barracks at night to keep tabs on the enlisted men (who are younger than you, if you can believe it). During this time, I had just purchased a new Saturn sedan (hey, it was what you did in the 90’s).
One night, while on patrol in the pimpmobile that was the Saturn, Daddy was summoned to a barracks room for an emergency. A soldier who had been doing flaming shots of Everclear grain alcohol had missed, poured the liquor on his face and simultaneously burned both his facial skin and his esophagus, causing his throat to swell shut. Daddy threw the (basically suffocating) soldier into the Saturn and sped to the local hospital – ignoring an MP (military police officer) trying to pull him over for 4 miles. The soldier barely survived. (Side note: The smell of burning flesh will NEVER come out of your car upholstery and is not covered by the manufacturer’s warranty.)
Another night, Daddy was alerted to a disturbance by the sound of multiple gunshots in the vicinity of the barracks. He intercepted a group of drunken soldiers who had stolen a bulletproof vest and were taking turns donning the vest and shooting each other with a .44 magnum. Thinking Kevlar was indestructible; the marksmen came within 1 shot of shredding the vest and suffering gunshot wounds to the chest. Looking back, those two traumatic situations started a sanity downward spiral for Lieutenant Daddy.
In 1996 I graduated from college and Daddy was ordered to Germany. What that really meant was I would be in Germany and Daddy would be deployed to, first Bosnia, and then Kosovo. Bosnia was horrific. As part of the United Nations team assigned to investigate mass graves, Daddy was subjected to things no one could be expected to endure. I only found these things out later as bits and pieces emerged during the barely-conscious, drunken conversations that marked the only true communication of our later marriage.
He tried to hide what he had seen. I don’t know if he was protecting himself or me. He never really understood that true intimacy requires true vulnerability. The army is very good at making you believe that vulnerability, hell even humanity, is pure weakness and to be avoided at all costs. I wouldn’t have judged him for any of it…not the hatred I’m sure he felt, not the tears I’m sure he shed, not the moments of doubt and self-loathing. I only wanted to be let in, but slowly and surely he shut me out. By the time we had the kids, I don’t know that he was ever really able to let them in to begin with.
Bosnia and Kosovo were followed by Iraq and Afghanistan. With every deployment the armor on the shell of what used to be Daddy thickened and hardened. I begged him to get help. I signed us up for couple’s therapy. I encouraged him to seek PTSD counseling. He was having none of it. I couldn’t force him. I was helpless. If you’ve ever had VIP seating to the slow deterioration of someone’s sanity – their very personhood - you understand what I mean.
By the end, we were both incapable of laughing. The last 7 years of our marriage were a carefully choreographed, strategic avoidance of one another designed to prevent stepping on the numerous land mines that littered the battlefield of our relationship. Daddy was so distant, that he couldn’t – and still can’t – name a single one of the kids’ friends or teachers. After 18 years of marriage, he doesn’t know what my favorite color is, what the kids like for breakfast, or the name of the woman who babysits his children every morning before school.
A couple of months after the divorce was final – on Father’s Day – the kids and I took Daddy out to dinner. He drank heavily and then drove home and decided to take his motorcycle out for a spin. He stopped at a bar and all I know is that some time after that he crashed the bike and wound up in neurological intensive care for three days. Two months of rehab and two reconstructive surgeries corrected much of the exterior damage. I couldn’t help thinking, though, that finally some of what was wrong on the inside was showing on the outside. It was almost a shame to see the scars fade. The army ordered him to PTSD treatment following the accident.
For a while after that he tried harder to see the kids, to be a good father. It didn’t last. I know now that it never will. He is supposed to have the kids every other weekend and 2 consecutive weeks during the year. That hasn’t happened in the past year, I don’t think it can. He expends more effort avoiding contact with his children than it would take to care for them. Over the years, Lieutenant Daddy has turned into Colonel Daddy, and there will forever be the demons to hunt down and slay. Work is a convenient excuse for absence and neglect. I know that closeness makes him feel vulnerable, like he has too much to lose … the things he’s seen so many others lose. I hope that one day the kids understand this, instead of believing that they are deficient in some way. I fear that he has given them their own demons to slay.
Daddy and I are still good friends – in as much as he’s able to offer friendship. I wouldn’t have it any other way. I know Man Toy sometimes doesn’t understand why I am so easy on Daddy – abject failure of a father that he is. I know how Daddy got there, though, and sometimes when we talk, I can see just the smallest hint of the person that he used to be. There was a truly good, funny, irreverent – yes, selfish – but honest and idealistic person in there. I’ll sometimes feel as though there is just the tiniest silver thread of that person dangling out somewhere and – if I pull it gently – that person will come back. Nothing is sadder than realizing that will never happen.
I met Man Toy’s ex-wife about five months into our relationship. We had decided early on to wait until we had been dating six months before meeting each other’s kids. I slept with Man Toy on our second date (I know, total tramp, right?), but I was cautious enough to keep my children out of the picture, even if I weren’t cautious enough to keep my pants on. (On a complete side note: I really do hate to advocate irresponsible behavior, but … Oh. My. God. I cannot possibly regret earning my “Slut Badge” in that instance.)
Before meeting the kids, we thought it would be prudent to have a face-to-face with each other’s exes. The thinking went that we should have a meet-and-greet as a sign of respect. I hoped for the same, I said, from my ex. I would later be sadly disappointed. This initial meeting was more for the benefit of “The Chameleon” than “Daddy Who?”. “Daddy Who?” was so involved in the kids’ lives that I could have brought home John Wayne Gacy in a Liberace costume and he would have hired him as a babysitter for his weekends with the kids. “The Chameleon” was a much more involved parent and, from my standpoint, that had to be respected.
We met at a local coffee shop for an afternoon latte. I had a vague sense of what she looked like from a picture that stood atop one of her girls’ dressers. I knew from the age of the child that the picture had been taken a few years ago. I wasn’t sure how much she had changed. It was odd to me that I had been in the little girl’s room so many times, but had never met her; that I had seen this picture of her mother sitting there so many times, but didn’t know the first thing about her.
I got there early; I always like to have the advantage of picking the seating. She was a few minutes late, a habit that would later drive me absolutely insane. When she did arrive … She. Was. Stunning. She was tall and slender with long, sleek, black hair and an air of confidence that made me shrink in my seat. Forget that I have a Master’s Degree and she none. Forget that I am completely financially stable, and she on the verge of bankruptcy. Forget that I am emotionally secure (mostly), and she the poster child for passive-aggressive disorder. Forget that I understood the value of what she had so callously dismissed, and she no clue what she had thrown away. I was cowed by her mere physical presence.
She was completely at ease. I tried my best – and probably badly – to appear equally nonchalant. Despite the fact that she was everything I felt I wasn’t, I liked her. She was charming – a quality I would later find was directly correlated with her relationship status. At the time I met her, she was involved with a widower with an 8-year-old little girl. It would later prove to be a rocky and doomed relationship, and her ability to be magnanimous and charming would sink with the hobbled boat that was her relationship. At the time of our meeting, however, she felt secure in her status. So secure, in fact, that she was making plans to fly out to meet him in Seattle for one of his business trips. He was, you see, a soldier. This was an irony that was not lost on me.
At the time of our meeting, I would have been completely convinced of her contentedness had I not known more about her. Man Toy had been divorced for more than a year by the time we started dating, but The (then single and unhappy) Chameleon still had a rather uncharitable response to the knowledge of my existence. Though she wanted the divorce, when she found out I was in the picture, she went out and got a tattoo of her initials and the initials of Man Toy entwined on her inner forearm. At the time he told me about it, I was concerned. I was having visions of a bunny boiler - ala Glen Close in “Fatal Attraction” – but was still willing to attribute her rash decision to the recent trauma of the divorce. I let it slide.
Back at the coffee shop, I tried to initiate a friendly relationship with her – the kind that says: 1) I will love your children ‘cause they deserve that; but 2) keep your fucking distance. I apparently failed on that second front, as she soon became quite a fixture at my house for extended – and completely unnecessary - periods of time. My parents are southern, you see. In that social tradition, I simply cannot bring myself to exclude anyone from an invitation. In the south, though, we understand that some invitations are a matter of form … they are meant to be declined.
The Chameleon has apparently never heard of this social rule. Every time there was a gathering at my home, I could be sure that she would show up. For the first meeting with some of Man Toy’s friends, I threw a pool party at my house. The toy’s ex showed up with bells on. It was awkward enough that I was in full-on interview mode with all of Man Toy’s amigos (in a bathing suit, no less). With Chameleon there, I had to work on making her feel comfortable, WHILE impressing the friends, WHILE feeding 25 hungry people (most of whom were screaming children), WHILE trying to ignore the fact that I was visibly uncomfortable listening to the familiar banter among the long-time buddies. (Stick around, friends! For my next amazing feat, I’ll stick my head in the oven and breathe deeply.)
Having nothing to contribute to the friendly reminiscences (I had just met these people), I was largely silent while Chameleon held court on my back patio as though she was center stage at the Metropolitan Opera House. I may have spoken a paragraph or two to Man Toy’s friends that day. A colleague of mine, god bless her, pulled me aside halfway through the party and said, “They seem nice enough. I’m sure they’re lovely. They’re quite cliquey though, aren’t they? You’re not the hired help. Don’t act like it.” Though it was advice I couldn’t follow, it was helpful to know someone else felt the awkwardness of that entire asinine situation.
On other occasions, she would show up 2-to-3 hours before she needed to pick the kids up. Mind you, neither her children nor Man Toy would be home at the time. She would hang out, drink wine and chat. When I say, “chat” I mean this: I would ask her endless questions to avoid awkward silence and she would talk about herself ad nauseam. To hear her take on things, her job was fantastic (though she would leave it later that year), she was smarter than anyone else around her, and – if only the world would operate by her rules – there would be peace and harmony. Jews and Muslims, blacks and whites, Republicans and Democrats, Communists and Capitalists would all join hands and sing Kumbaya. The way she built herself up, I could swear she was trying to get in my pants.
I can’t remember one time – not one – she asked me about myself. This tendency toward one-sided relational dealings, I gather, was not an insignificant contributor to the demise of her marriage. There were many evenings – listening to her wax eloquent about her myriad virtues, and watching her wave that damn tattoo around in my face - I wanted to reach back to my inner-city-kid roots and just get real for a minute.
Look, bitch. I got lots of love for you ‘cause you’re a stand-up mom and you’re doing’ your kids a solid. Cool? Cool. But I’m a single mom of 2 kids with a full-time career. I ain’t got time for whatever the hell kind of ego-strokin’ bullshit is goin’ on here right now. You’re pretty. God, it’s a good thing you’re pretty, ‘cause you are ALL kinds of fucked up if you’re wantin’ validation from your ex-husband’s girlfriend. Middle school behavior doesn’t interest me and I am not in competition with you, so get your self-absorbed ass off my couch before I have to take my earrings off.” (Editor’s note: Inner-city girls ALWAYS take their earrings off before they fight. They tend to be big and make easy targets during a proper throw-down.)
If I thought it couldn’t get any worse, the holidays dropped a huge Santa’s bag full of uncomfortable “family time” in my lap to prove me wrong. Thanksgiving was actually lovely. Man Toy and I were both kid-free and spent the day with his parents, his brother, and his niece. Even though it was the first time I had met them all, they were gracious, accepting, and friendly. Yeah…. Christmas didn’t go down like that.
By the time December rolled around, The Chameleon’s turbulent relationship with the soldier had exploded rather dramatically for the 2nd time. She had changed her entire persona for this guy – purchasing expensive motorcycle gear to ride on his Harley Davidson and boning up on military history and culture. Though he had already unceremonious dumped her once (via text message, no less), she introduced her children to him within 2 days of their reunion. After their second and final rupture, she was hurt, miserable, out a bunch of money, and without plans for the holiday. What this meant for me was lots of yuletide reptilian company.
There were, of course, the ramp-up-to-Christmas activities. These included a trip to Santa’s railroad for May Toy, the kids, me… and The Chameleon. It was raining and icing that night and my hair was stuck to my face, make-up running. The Chameleon looked lovely as usual, her perfectly arranged hair and makeup impervious to any aqueous assault. They all skittered and cavorted while I wondered if I was the only one concerned about dragging children out at night while the roads accumulated a thick layer of ice. Watching all the happy-family fun, I was sure everyone else thought Man Toy, The Chameleon, and their kids were a lovely family and I and my children their unfortunate, fatherless friends sadly tagging along. The one that killed me, though, was the Festival of Lights at a local cultural center.
I had that weekend off from my own kids - a rare and treasured event - so I wasn’t terribly excited about the itinerary. We would be spending the day at Man Toy’s mom’s house with his children. We would follow this up by trudging through the frigid, mid-western night with an overtired 4-year-old to look at twinkly lights with thousands of other exasperated parents dragging their screaming, glassy-eyed kids. It was my own personal version of hell - staged on one of the four days I had to myself that entire month. I was game, however, because I would get to meet Man Toy’s sister who had flown in for the festivities. I also thought The Chameleon would not be there. Surprise! She was not only there, but she and the sister? Best buds!
We arrived in the early afternoon after 90 minutes in the car, having eaten nothing since breakfast. The Chameleon and the kids were already at the house. When I saw her, my heart sank. I may have actually let the words, “oh fuck,” escape quietly from my lips. Man Toy’s mom and sister were in the midst of a full-on battle over who was responsible for initiating the get together and – therefore – who was responsible for providing the food. Since no one could seem to decide who was responsible for food, no one went to get any. I was tempted to pull out my checkbook and start ordering people around but thought that might be presumptuous.
Forget cutting it with a knife, the tension between the sister and the mom WAS a knife. I tried to distract myself by making conversation with sister-lady, but she seemed more inclined to see me as an interloper and threat to her Bestie, The Chameleon. She never said more than a few words to me and only when required to speak. I sat on the sofa with a couple of other people (who were clearly not family favorites) listening to the mechanical singing Santa in the corner as the riotous children set it off over, and over, and over again. I would have stabbed one of them in the neck for a glass of wine.
We weren’t leaving for the lights festival until 6 p.m. and it was then 2 p.m. That meant four hours trapped with people eyeing me like a stranger who wandered into their town during a flu epidemic with a Spanish accent and a bad cough. The ravenous, emotionally torturous familial gaiety was more than I could take. I had to get out of there. Thankfully, my father lives about 5 miles from Man Toy’s parents. He was a convenient excuse to skip some of the drama. I would just scoot over there and check in, I said. It would be a shame to come all this way, be this close, and not stop in for just a moment.
I drove slowly to my dad’s house, trying to erase the voice of the mechanical Santa from the tape recorder in my head. When I got there, I don’t even think I said hello before throwing open his refrigerator. He made me a sandwich and poured me a glass of wine while I told him my tale of woe. He was laughing so hard, at one point he had to put the knife down to wipe his eyes. Bastard.
When I returned to the house, someone had relented and gone on a food run. We ate and everyone prepped for the evening. Once we actually got to the pretty, twinkly lights, I sidled up to Man Toy’s brother - the one who had been so kind during Thanksgiving. He may have been a fall down drunk with some weird conspiracy theories, but he was always thoughtful and he knew where to find the booze. He reached into his pocket and slid something into my hand. It was a little airplane bottle of Bailey’s Irish Cream. “You look like you could use this,” he said. I thanked him like I was dead last on the donor list and he had given me a kidney.
If the ramp-up to Christmas was a bonfire of stupidity, the day of was a thermonuclear explosion. I discovered that The Chameleon would be spending Christmas Eve night at our house. Yeah. Not a typo. Spending the night. “You have GOT to be fucking kidding me,” my inner-city girl screamed. I understood that she wanted to be with her kids on Christmas morning and it was the only thing that kept me from coming un-fucking-glued. I wanted nothing more than to spend my holiday surrounded by the people I loved and trusted, and would now have an evening and morning of second-guessing the motives of someone whom I needed to make comfortable at the same time as I tried to distance myself from her. At least I thought it would only be the evening and morning.
The Chameleon arrived Christmas Eve at 5 p.m. and stayed until 5 p.m. the following day. It was a full-on Chameleon festival. It was hard to enjoy her children opening presents from me without feeling the need to apologize if they liked them more than her own. It was impossible to enjoy drinks and dinner without feeling the need to check on her comfort. My southern breeding prevented me from resting if she wasn’t content. She, of course, seemed perfectly at ease and made no effort to help with anything – not food preparation, childcare, or even removing her own plate from the dinner table. When I inevitably ran out of things to say to her, I tried to hide. She made no effort at conversation, didn’t seem to mind uncomfortable silence, and showed no inclination to leave. I was in the awkward position of retreating from my own family on Christmas to escape the torture.
Thankfully, it was about this time that she started dating a professor from a local college. In true Chameleon style, her interests turned from Harley Davidsons and ruining my life to returning to college to pursue a degree. In preparation for that, she left her job of 5 years to take one at the nearby university. It was further away, more work, and worse hours, but she could get reduced-rate tuition. It was during this job change that an incident occurred that made the make-nice-with-the-exes wheels come off the bus.
The university offered very generous healthcare benefits – in fact it was free to cover dependents. Man Toy had been covering the kids at a substantial out-of-pocket cost. His ex proposed (oh-so-generously) to cover the kids at absolutely no expense to her if Man Toy would agree to give her the +/- $300 a month it was costing him to insure the kids. It was basically extortion. She didn’t care about the quality of the kids’ healthcare or whether it just made financial sense, she wanted more money and she knew the court wouldn’t give her any. About this time, many of her student loans – for the degree she had never achieved – were coming due. Man Toy baulked for obvious reasons. In order to understand my reaction to the fight that followed, you have to understand my relationship with my house. I know it sounds weird, but follow me here.
I bought my house the first time I decided to leave my ex. It wasn’t much at the time, but it was what I could afford. It was in a good neighborhood, in a great community and a block away from a school in an awesome district. The previous owners had replaced the roof and windows on the three-bedroom, 1958 ranch – and done little else. In fact, the entire inside was painted lilac purple. The one full bathroom was 1960s chic – the toilet, tub, and miles of tile surround were actually light blue. When you walked on the floors, they would crunch as the deteriorating grout disintegrated under your feet. The kitchen was all old laminate countertops and flooring. It was ugly, but it had soul. I could feel it…and it was mine.
I eventually relented and let Daddy Who? move in, and – because of my weakness and his persistence – put his name on the deed. I spent four years and several thousand dollars painting, hand-building custom cabinets, ripping out bathrooms and kitchens, moving walls, and replacing laminate with tile and granite. To save money, I often did the work myself, and every corner of the house has literally been marked with my blood, sweat, and tears.
At one point, I was building some cabinets in the dining room. I needed to put on just one last piece of trim. Not wanting to pull the ladder back out, I opted (foolishly) to stand on a high-backed barstool. Needless to say, I fell … one leg on either side of the back of that barstool. If you’ve ever injured yourself so badly that you can’t breathe, then you know my pain. I didn’t think a vagina could actually swell like that. I thought I might have done permanent nerve damage, but it seems I’ve dodged that bullet. I’ve nail-gunned myself in the finger, super-glued hair to my neck (long story), and dug shards of tile out of my eye.
When I left Daddy Who? for good, he threatened to fight me for the house he didn’t buy, didn’t care about, and didn’t contribute to. He said he would go for 50% custody of the children he didn’t really want if I didn’t buy him out. After 18 years of marriage, I bought him out, walked away from my share of his retirement, but left with my house and my kids. I know I got the better end of the deal but it hurt to pay him for a house that wasn’t his. It also heightened my unnatural devotion to the structure that represents the only true home I’ve ever had. In the army, we moved every 6-18 months. I’ve lived in my house six years – twice the amount of time I’ve ever lived anywhere else. The house is mine. They will carry me out of there in a pine box.
The night of the disagreement, The Chameleon came over to my beloved structure to drop the kids off. She and Man Toy started talking and – though I couldn’t hear the substance of the conversation – I could tell by the tone of their voices that it wasn’t pretty. I excused myself to the other room to give them some space. It’s a good thing I did that because, if I had known what was said, I would be banging a tin cup on the bars of a prison cell right now. When Man Toy resisted The Chameleon’s effort at extortion, she told him to fuck off. He – more politely than I could have – asked her to leave. She refused, saying, “I’m not leaving the house where my children are.”
So, let’s just get this straight. I just want to follow. You come in to MY house - the house I love like a gold digger loves a 90-year-old billionaire - tell someone I love to fuck off, and then refuse to leave? Oh, it is on, bitch.
I was not pleased. It was a good month before I was able to even be in the same room with The Chameleon. Trust me when I say avoidance was the best course of action. All of my friends will tell you, I have no poker face. I can’t even ignore the crazy guys on the bus. I spent the better part of my relationship with The Chameleon wearing a smile so fake that I looked like an over-Botoxed Cheshire Cat. She didn’t seem to notice that, but following the fight I was certain she couldn’t miss the sneer that the mere mention of her name induced. I would conveniently have to check on friends during kid exchanges; I opted out of gatherings where she was present. It was better that way. I know my limitations and I know what’s at stake.
Her relationship with the professor started to go downhill at this point and she had lots of free time to make Man Toy’s life hell. She sent emails threatening to go after his retirement (2 years after the divorce was final). These were, of course, empty threats. The law tends to see divorces as final. You know, since they are and all. She achieved her goal, though. She created stress.
Luckily, she lost interest as she started up another relationship with the father of one of her children’s friends. This guy is apparently very religious and in to weapons. She has recently started posting pictures of herself on Facebook shooting assault rifles. The former non-religious lesbian now posts frequent messages about how blessed she is by god. It is interesting to watch The Chameleon change colors. What’s sad is that – four weeks into this new relationship – she is planning to introduce him to her children. I wonder if her girls will ever know stability in their mother’s house.
The past few months have also taught me my role in all this madness. If required to participate in family events, I blend in to the background. Man Toy’s youngest girl recently turned 5. The birthday party was at a local bowling alley. I brought my phone. I handed out quarters to kids who wanted to play video games. I checked my email. I sang happy birthday. I caught up on my games of “Words With Friends”. I offered to clean up. I checked in on “Facebook”. My non-obtrusive presence is really all that’s required to fulfill my partnering obligations without stepping on The Chameleon’s little webbed toes. I would do more, but it suits no one’s best interest. For the moment, all is right with the world.
Not The Mom (Me)
People should never be allowed to write about themselves - especially if they’re publishing something anonymously. The temptation is too great to make yourself out to be a mental Tyrannosaurus Rex: “I play classical piano pieces whilst painting in the style of Renoir with my toes. I am fluent in six languages, am an expert in three forms of yoga, and have a black belt in Tae Kwon Do. I do all of this, of course, as I admire the Nobel Peace Prize atop the mantle in my Malibu mansion."
In reality, I can only read music marginally. I play chopsticks badly. Any art I’ve ever done looks like you put a pen in an epileptic’s hand just to see what would happen. I can speak a weird combo of tourist German and halting Spanish that comes from formal Spanish classes and pick-it-up-on-the-road German. Since my brain can’t pick apart which non-English language I’m supposed to be speaking, I will sometimes just open my mouth and see what amalgamation comes out. No matter what country I’m in, people are always giving me directions to the Center for the Mentally Disabled. Go figure.
I try to avoid the mirrors in yoga class, but I’m quite certain I look like a clunky, arthritic Frankenstein surrounded by graceful, bendy swans. When I play hopscotch with Man Toy and his little girl, he can perfectly balance on one foot as he effortlessly bends to retrieve his rock. I shake on my one foot, argue for leniency any time my other toe touches for balance, have several false starts, and attempt to snatch the rock off the ground before gravity realizes how little coordination I actually have.
I’ve never done martial arts, unless you count letting Man Toy practice his Jiu Jitsu moves on me. Sure, I learn some stuff, but this service is only provided under the guise of self-sacrifice. The man has a smokin’ hot bod. Having him lie on me and grab me from behind is not exactly unpleasant. I try to make the “I’m-taking-this-so-seriously” face, but when a muscled leg or arm is right in front of my face I have a hard time not biting it. I think I lack the ability to take anything seriously enough to attain mastery.
I can do two really cool things. My tongue bends into bizarre flower shapes that really freak my friends out. I can also put my leg behind my head. These are awesome party tricks. While neither talent will earn me the Nobel Peace Prize or the Malibu mansion, they are great precursors for a career in the sex industry. Every time I deal with an entitled, lazy or particularly dense student, I get a little angry that my high school counselor failed to catch my obvious aptitude for this field.
If I thought I was going to redeem myself with my amazing parenting skills, I was sadly mistaken. I came to parenting reluctantly. Ironically, having kids was a deal-breaker for “Daddy Who?” His first wife had not wanted kids, and that was always a point of contention between the two of them. In hindsight the pressure was probably one of the catalysts for her affair.
I was ambivalent about children, but was willing to enter into a parenting partnership … if it were, indeed, a partnership. I did my due diligence – checking in with “Daddy Who?” time and again just to be certain he understood the magnitude of the decision. Was he ready to change half the diapers? Was he ready to wade through the exhausting bog of shitty, vomit-covered whininess? Was he ready to put his career on the back burner? Could he muster the inordinate patience and physical stamina necessary to be a real parent? Yes, yes, yes he said. He was so, so wrong. I hope he was just naïve and not out-and-out lying.
I ended up putting my career on the back burner. I ended up changing all the diapers. I ended up taking all the time off work. I ended up cleaning up the puke; helping with the homework; suffering through the tantrums; managing the schools; dealing with the doctors and the endless stream of ever-changing specialists, therapists, and insurance company case workers for my autistic son.
Marriage does not preclude single parenthood. The divorce only formalized what was already happening. Despite the fact that Daddy Who? jumped ship, my kids have always had everything they needed and more. They live in a beautiful house in a great school district. They have clean clothes, stomachs full of healthy food, social interaction, access to technology, help with homework, structure, order, and good discipline. I am a good manager.
I also have very little emotional energy for the kids. I’m far from emotionally abusive. In fact, being with the kids causes me to shift into what I call “go mode.” The list of things that has to get done scrolls on the heads-ups display in my brain. I shut off the emotion, put on my big red clown shoes and start stomping out fires. I calmly move my them through their daily routine: breakfast, teeth, get dressed, get to bus, get off bus, snack, homework, dinner, free time for them (cleaning for me), pajamas, teeth, bed.
Demands for emotional engagement make me squirm, however, because childhood angst is time-consuming and I’m on a tight schedule, I know exactly where this aversion comes from. When my son was little, he would throw temper tantrums for hours. It’s a trait common for young autistic children. I was trapped in the house – alone or with an infant – holding a toddler who spent a good part of the day screaming. He would sometimes lose his voice. I could see it – his voice that is – walking down the road, hand-in-hand with my sanity.
I couldn’t even walk away for a moment. He thrashed so violently I feared he would injure himself. I often had to sit behind him and restrain him. I would wrap my legs around his and hold his back to my chest with one arm while trying to avoid getting head butted in the nose as he pounded his head against me. I frequently had bruises on my chest and neck. At first, the tantrums were so draining and overwhelming that I spent many days in tears beside my son. After a while, I could somewhat ignore the screaming and use my free hand to prop a bottle up for my daughter if she were hungry, answer a text message, or doodle. When I got better at crawling into my insulating emotional cocoon, I could block the chaos out well enough to read a book.
As my son grew better at dealing with the barrage of sensory information that overwhelmed his damaged brain, the tantrums eventually – and very gradually – waned and then disappeared. It’s ironic that we both had to learn how to disconnect in order to deal with the autism. He had to disconnect physically; I had to disconnect emotionally. It was self-protective for both of us.
Now – so terrified am I of returning to that horror – even the slightest hint of emotional disturbance stirs intense anxiety. What I’m positive are completely normal expressions of adolescent frustration from my children are met with comments like, “Don’t be ridiculous,” “Cut the dramatics,” “Are you dead? Are you dying? Are you bleeding? No? You’re fine.” On a bad day, the kids might even get the classic, “Cut that shit out. Go to your room until you can be good company.” When Man Toy’s little girl throws a perfectly typical 5-year-old tantrum, I flinch with every wail.
The emotion takes me back to such a dark place that I try to just shut it down. I simply cannot take any more demands in that arena. It’s the affective version of trying to mug someone who left her wallet at home. The kids want something I don’t have to give. It’s not going to end well for one of us.
I’m shockingly okay with my emotional detachment. I do sometimes worry that it will impact my kids in nasty ways, but I find it hard to muster much sympathy for the cushy, secure, privileged lives of my children. I’m the daughter of an abusive alcoholic father and a suicidal, bipolar mother. I left home at 15 years old. So, I’m not June Cleaver; the kids are lucky I’m not Joan Crawford. Besides, I hate the perfect-mom culture that encourages women to give everything to their children, neglect their own needs, and emotionally immolate themselves for any act that doesn’t meet the standards of The Stepford Wives’ Guide to Perfect Parenting. I’m human – I’m okay with my kids knowing that and accepting it about themselves.
I’d like to think I am giving my children the gift of an easy target for their over-expressive teenage angst. I can see them in the future sitting with their fellow oily, black-clad, theatre groupies. “Sure, I had good food, nice clothes, great schools, proper supervision, friends, and parents who loved me. You know what’s really fucked up, though? My mom told me to ‘suck it up’ all the time. Turn up the Marilyn Manson and pass me a razor blade.” They can thank me later.
My 9-year-old daughter is mature, slyly sarcastic, quick-witted, more than a little devious, and genuinely sensitive–belying her practiced nonchalance. She is also relentlessly talkative. She answers even simple questions with a barrage of insignificant backstory so detailed that – if conversations had DNA – she could sequence the 3 billion genes of every topic without so much as drawing a breath. I sometimes have to remind her to breathe.
She will answer questions you have asked other people. She will answer questions you haven’t even asked. Probably because she’s afraid her mouth muscles will atrophy if she’s silent for so much as a nanosecond. The two worst things you can ever hear from Chatty Cathy are, “Did you know that ….?” or “Can I ask you a question?” I’ve taken to pre-emptive strikes for both of those conversational lead-ins.
CC: Mom, did you know that…
Me: Yep, already knew it.
CC: But I didn’t tell you what it was.
Me: I know; I’m psychic.
I try to say this with an air of mysticism and even add jazz hands if I’m feeling really dramatic. Then, I send her on an errand as quickly as possible. “Why don’t you go clean your room up a little (do your homework, get the laundry, feed the cat, run up and down the stairs with something sharp).”
What’s really maddening is when she asks a question. Contrary to tradition, the sole purpose of her questions are – not to get answers – but to tell you the answer. Frequently her answers are fully or partially wrong, but try telling her that. The only thing Chatty hates more than silence is being wrong.
CC: Mom, can I ask you a question?
Me: (Sigh) Okay.
CC: Is Canada a country or a state?
Me: It’s a country.
CC: Nope. It’s a state.
Me: Nooooo, I’m pretty sure it’s a whole other country.
CC: Mom, mom, mom (patting my hand condescendingly). Follow me here. They sometimes call Canada a nation. Nations are sometimes called states. We’re The United States. We unite all the states – even Canada. Canada is one of our states.
Me: Nope…still a completely separate country. Google it if you don’t believe me.
CC: I’m not allowed to go on the Internet by myself.
Me: www.google.com Knock yourself out.
CC: Nah. I already know the answer.
Me: Then, why did you ask me?
CC: I was pretty sure you didn’t know.
I have a completely separate coping mechanism for these occasions.
CC: Can I ask you a question?”
CC: No, that’s not the answer.
Me: The Year of Our Lord, 1492
CC: That’s not the answer either.
Me: Then, maybe you’re asking the wrong question. Think about that.
In the brief moment of puzzlement that follows, I try to slip out of the room in the hopes that she’ll find another victim or discover the magic of Google.
The older she gets, the less she buys these tactics, and the more I’m subjected to the massive run-on sentences that are our daily discourse. What’s worse is that I think she now knows I’m actively trying to avoid conversation. That makes me feel guilty, so, every now and then, I have to knuckle under and listen. When I say, “listen” what I really mean is plan escape routes in my head while fighting the urge to bolt like our abused shelter cat does when the 4-year-old traps her in the corner to “pet” her. I’ve thought about carrying an emergency Xanax – or hell, cyanide capsule – in my pocket.
To add to her personality peculiarities, when I want to talk to her about something serious, she will completely shut down. If, for instance, I wanted to know why she has cried during every math lesson at school for the past week when she’s practically ready for the math portion of the SATs, I would get nothing. She would say it was too upsetting to talk about and immediately launch into facts about the mating habits of the North American river otter. (Did you know they mate under water?)
As a rather unemotional person myself, I can understand the appeal of talking rodent porn rather than feelings. I do, however, need to have baseline knowledge of the inner workings of my children. On occasion, then, I will find myself in the strange position of trying to get Chatty to – not just talk – but actually open up.
Me: What’s going on in math, Chatty? Mrs. Knowitall says you’ve been crying.
CC: It’s too hard, and I hate Mrs. Knowitall.
Me: I can help you. What’s giving you trouble?
CC: Nothing. I don’t want to talk about it.
Me: I think we need to talk about it.
CC: Do owls have sex?
Me: What? No….errrr, yes, I guess so. I think we need to talk about …
CC: I just wondered if they were like fish where they lay the eggs and, then, they get fertilized or if they do it, you know (wink, wink) the other way.
Me: I don’t want to talk about owl sex. We need to talk about math.
CC: If you don’t tell me, I’ll just Google it.
There seems to be a lot of folk wisdom about children with autism. You know the stereotype – emotionally disengaged and smarter than everyone else. My 12-year-old son does nothing typically, least of all autism. It’s true that he is pretty socially oblivious. He constantly walks through the house with one of his hand-held, electronic buddies, defeating zombies with pea-shooting plants, making video milk shakes for virtual customers in his online malt shop, or directing ninja kittens who wear toast as armor. (Who the hell makes up these kids’ games?) If the girls scream, cry, dance, or commit harikari – he doesn’t much give a shit. That would require him to live outside of his plug-in device, something that he rarely does.
I’ll admit I have a certain amount of guilt about allowing him to spend so much time in the virtual universe. Pulling him out of his computer-code haven is so labor intensive, though, that I usually find it too difficult to muster the parental will. On the few occasions that I try to “reality rape” him (he resists so much you would think that was what I was doing), he sulks, offers almost no reciprocal interaction, and asks constantly how long I am going to torture him before he can play video games again. It’s less than quality parenting time.
Just when you think he’s been totally eaten by the matrix, though, he will reengage in ways that belie the assumption he’s taken up permanent residence in LaLa Land. This will usually happen when one of the girls is trying to get away with something or is being unfair to one of her siblings. The Savant has lightening fast, ferocious sensibilities when it comes to anything unjust or sneaky. He once told me unfair things hurt people and, “That’s just not ok … ever.” It’s called empathy and, if you ask the experts, he should have none. In truth, he is a kind, honest, and thoughtful soul.
He is so hard on himself when he makes a mistake or has an accident; it borders on masochistic. No matter how often I try to tell him everyone has missteps, he seems obsessed with the idea that people will stop loving him. We’ll all just turn our backs and cast him out. “You what? You broke a 50-cent Walmart glass? I’m sorry son. It’s to the orphanage with you. There might be a family out there that can stand you, but I can’t even look at you right now."
Seriously. I think he has nightmares about it. I sometimes wonder if this comes from the fact that he and Chatty Cathy have been functionally abandoned by “Daddy Who?”. Sure he sees them every other weekend and two weeks in the summer, but much of that time is spent with Daddy Who?’s mother. He lives 20 miles from the kids, has to drive right by my house for work, has a standing invitation to dinner and, yet, will go the entire two weeks without so much as calling his children.
It’s odd because Daddy Who? will call and speak to me several times a week. I’m sure he can even hear the kids in the background. It simply doesn’t occur to him to ask to speak with them. I, sometimes, offer. He, sometimes, says yes; mostly he just says he’s in a hurry to get somewhere. I don’t think the children even knew there was anything wrong with the situation until Man Toy moved in. He has his children every other week.
Man Toy enjoys time with his kids and - since his arrival - we do an awful lot of stuff as a family. Even when I was married to Daddy Who?, he seldom vacationed with me and the children and never went to the movies, dinner, or birthday parties with us. Family-event days like Christmas and Easter were pure torture for him and, if he could beg off, he would. Because of this, Chatty Cathy and The Savant were slow to adapt to having Man Toy around. At one point Chatty actually asked me when he was going to leave for work, “God, Mom, he’s like the dad that’s ALWAYS here. What’s up with that?” she asked, more than a little annoyed. She has since made nice and come to enjoy his company - probably more than she’ll ever admit.
The Savant had a different reaction. At first he became very physically protective and jealous. When Man Toy was around, he would sit all 5 feet, 6 inches and 125 pounds of himself in my lap. This is something he hasn’t done in years. He was much like one of those Great Danes that thinks it’s a teacup Poodle. In his mind he was dainty and cute. In reality he was more like a semi parked on your legs and you couldn’t be entirely sure he wouldn’t pee on you.
After a few months and much effort, Man Toy was able to find something he and The Savant had in common. Man Toy would spend a few minutes a couple of nights a week playing video games with the Savant. What’s more, he would, sometimes, take The Savant to the gym with him to work out. They called it, “boy time.” The Savant latched on to that like a bleach-blonde trailer troll to a single plastic surgeon. As a result, the boy felt more secure in his position and the extreme abandonment issues subsided. Three points in the clutch for The Man Toy.
The Savant is still very sensitive, thoughtful, and kind, though. This puzzles his neurologist. So does the fact that he couldn’t reason his way out of a cardboard box. Seriously, if I put a box over his head, he would probably just cut out a peephole and live in there. I can’t tell if the problem is a lack of attention, intelligence, or motivation, but he clearly has no inclination for anything academic.
Sure, he can memorize lots of stuff. If I put War and Peace in front of him, he can read every word. That’s only because he can decode, not because he can understand. Intuition and inference are out of the question. My sarcasm is completely lost on him and – if I don’t dictate in the most rudimentary terms – I’m quite sure he would never bathe or change clothes. He might not even breathe.
I expect that The Savant will be with me for a long time. He may eventually achieve a certain amount of independence – even now he can care for himself for a couple of hours in my absence. I think this has more to do with his inactivity and singular focus on virtual entertainment than on any level of self-sufficiency. I fear what would happen if I left him alone long enough to need something more than an iPad for survival. He would, I’m certain, become one of those email-spam cautionary tales you dismiss as pure fiction just because it’s so improbable. “…And they found him there…days later. He hadn’t showered, eaten, or had a sip of water in more than a week. The mouse was still in his hand. His head was slumped on the keyboard. The screen read, ‘Do You Really Want to Exit?’”
The Savant is not self-reliant. In spite of his challenges, though, he will certainly always be a gentleman. This both frightens and delights me. His kindness, his unassuming eagerness to please, his innocent (and sometimes hilariously bumbling) attempts to win approval are pure bliss. He wants so badly to please and be liked; however, I fear he’ll fall prey to people who will exploit his naiveté. “You want me to take this nondescript brown paper bag over to the Mercedes with privacy glass, thumping bass and gold wheel spinners? Oh, sure. Should I get you a receipt?”
I want all good things for him but (like so much of parenting) a lot of it simply isn’t within my control. I only provide the guidance; dole out the rewards and punishments. I can’t force him to be more motivated, less interested in virtual entertainment, or more interested in personal hygiene. God knows I can’t make him any less autistic, so it’s a good thing he’s perfectly all right with me. I have a feeling that – unless there’s a sudden demand for professional video game players – we’ll have a long life together.
To be continued