“I fell in love with Jack when I heard him swearing at my kids.” I waited for the nervous giggle from the guests, though a few seats down the head table from us Patti was already laughing hysterically. “I mean, Ryder’s terrific, don’t get me wrong,” I went on with an obvious wink at my younger son, who smiled even as he hid behind his hair again. “But I can’t tell you all the things I was tempted to say to him back then, because this is a family event.” More laughter now, and Jack blushing too, all that really mattered because he was so sexy when he blushed. I don’t know if I should have I picked that story to tell at our wedding, and there was so much I’d be leaving unsaid, but what I had loved most from the beginning was his strength. I had so little of my own at the time…
“Explaining it again isn’t going to make a difference, Chris. I just…have to go. You know it, I know it–”
“I don’t know it. I don’t know why, after everything we’ve done to make it work that this is what ends it.”
“Chris, you know this isn’t the only thing. We’re running out of time. If I’m going to start over–”
“Start over? How long have you been planning this? Holy shit, Patricia.”
“It’s not like that…” she said again, through tears, through her hands clapped over her face, which only made me think I was right, that she’d fallen for someone else. This had happened before, so long ago it had started to seem like another person’s life. That had ended in a drunken showdown between me and the son of a bitch at her work Christmas party, but it had started with her crying into her hands just like this.
What had started the crying this time was me telling her about Chicago. I’d been a penniless intern at the firm when I met Patti, pulling sixty-five hour weeks and courting her in ninety minute blasts–two drinks, an improper suggestion, and the first horizontal surface in sight. Fourteen years, two kids and two career shifts later I was on half-flex time, and hadn’t been out of town in months. The kids were both old enough to not be too much work for Patti without me, and the four days in Chicago almost sounded fun.
If I hadn’t said those three words, the fight might not have started, but then again she wasn’t wrong when she said it wasn’t the only thing. I loved her–I had since the start, and in a way always will–and never doubted she loved me, but she had never really trusted me, never trusted that I meant it when I said I loved her. She was never pretty enough, never thin enough, never a good enough mom, and a man can only reassure his gorgeous, compassionate, accomplished wife so many times before he starts thinking he’s losing his mind. When my love couldn’t keep up with her paranoia, she had to augment it, with the kids, with her job, and now with a guy named Josh from her spin class.
I’ve thought a lot about what might have happened if we’d known about her depression sooner. Within twenty-four hours of leaving me she had hit the depths of a blue funk the likes of which none of us had ever seen. For a few days I debated sending her friends to rescue her from her parents’ house and her mother’s steady diet of passive-aggressive belittlement. Then I found her meds. She’d had the prescription for months, but there were too many in the bottle, which meant she hadn’t been taking them, which explained almost everything.
Clinical depression is an illness; if you disagree, you haven’t really seen it hit, seen it turn a person inside out, tear their family to shreds, no matter how hard they fight. I was granted custody, largely on the strength of a letter Patti wrote refuting her own mother’s conjecture about the kind of father I would be. While I dealt with the doctors and psychiatrists and lawyers and other garbage collectors of life, my mom moved into the house to keep things running day to day, but after the dust settled she went home and our new life began.
Nelson was twelve, Ryder nine. He was angriest. He’d always been quick-tempered but was sensitive around his mother, and without her he lost any ability to keep his cool. Fights at recess; fights in the hall; spitting on the school ground and pushing girls, and the crown jewel, throwing an eraser at his math teacher and mouthing back about it. His room became a prison, stripped of toys. The game consoles moved into my bedroom, his handheld onto the high shelf in my closet. Nothing mattered, nothing changed, and the house went into a blue funk of its own.
I can clean–I mean, I hate it, but I assume women hate it too, and it’s a wonder that society tricked them into doing most of it. For the first month people were working and going to school. Food kept getting eaten and not all of it by me, and I became very good at grabbing the five most necessary grocery items and getting out of the store in under five minutes. But it wasn’t long before homework was being forgotten, gym clothes were going unwashed, and the bathroom floor had achieved a state that warranted wearing shoes.
Patti had done so much for us, minded so many stupid little things, like which kind of paper towels fell apart in your hand and shouldn’t have been bought in the first place, or what brand of marble cheese Ryder would refuse to eat as if there was a genuine difference. I was spending money like crazy, leaving two ten dollar bills on the kitchen table every morning because I had no time to make lunches and no time to badger the kids into doing it themselves.
At work they’d given me authority over a new hire, a sparkly-eyed graduate who seemed to have got the job more on the vitality of his handshake than on his knowledge of jurisprudence. At least I had Jack. He’d been working for me only a few weeks when Patti left. When I saw him the day after, I’d found myself telling him everything. He had nodded and been kind but said little else, but he’d also kept it to himself, and he was twice as smart as the half-assed hire I was coddling. Jack was keeping me alive, in body and soul, putting up with my muttering, clarifying my ideas; bringing lunches and dinners, coffees and a couple times a beer when I was still there after sunset, my mind torn between the tasks I couldn’t hope to complete that day and the kids I was ignoring as I pointlessly tried. My assistant.
I don’t know what Jack was doing when I called, but he had never not answered the phone. My optimistic morning had devolved into an impossible afternoon, and I couldn’t trust the new kid Brayson with these easily offended clients. Time and space weren’t about to bend in my favour, so I would have to lean on Jack.
“Jack Kateri here, hi Chris.”
“Yeah, hi. Look, I know this is way off your job description, but I don’t know who else I can ask.”
“Do I even have a job description besides doing what you tell me?”
“Sure you do, ask HR. But look, I need a huge favour from you.”
“I need you to pick Ryder up from school. I’m sorry, it’s bullshit I gotta ask you, I mean I wish I could hand this file over instead and get him myself–”
“Is that seriously it? Am I taking him to your house?”
“Just till Nelson gets home.”
“And you called the school to tell them I’m coming?”
“I’ll do that right now.”
“Gee, Chris, I thought it was going to be a big deal.”
“Yeah, but it’s not your job to run my life.”
“Um, actually it is. You should let me do it sometime, you might like it. My billable hours don’t come off your take, you know. I make company money, baby.”
“What are you talking about.”
“I’m your PA, dumbass. Let me personally assist you for once. Why don’t you go read my job description. Text me the address of the school. I’ll let you know when the prisoner transfer is complete.”
“No problem, boss.”
Nelson would come home on his own after track, but Ryder couldn’t be trusted to walk the five blocks. Instead he’d hang around the front of the school, picking paint off the front steps and envying the passing high-schoolers for their vape pens, their phones, juicy bait to a kid just old enough to get into serious trouble and still young enough not to see it coming. Jack was however even cooler, with a fast car and brand new phone and a great haircut that would have made me look like a try-hard. Ryder had warmed to him quickly the few times they’d met. Surely they could get along for a couple hours.
In the end it was nearly seven by the time I got home. I hadn’t bothered to call, at first too desperate to finish and then too embarrassed. Patti would have already called me twice and been texting every eight minutes, and I had to admit my after-hours productivity had doubled since we’d split. A year ago this would have been eight thirty, with another forty-five minutes to go of her yelling at me for doing my job.
Someone at my house was yelling already, and not either of my boys. Yelling at such a volume that no one noticed the front door open and close.
“…literally the worst day you could have picked for this stunt. You know what your dad’s going through. You know you’ve got to make the best of this shitty situation. He can’t start bailing your ass out too. Not with the sort of shit this one apparently likes to cause.” Hidden by the chunk of wall between the doorway and the living room, I stood where I was, stunned to realize Nelson was in trouble too. Jack was right, I couldn’t take it if both my kids started acting out, but I’d given up on yelling long ago as it only made Ryder clam up.
“And then there’s you,” Jack continued, and though the volume was lower, the intent was even clearer. I could picture Ryder’s sulky look, his head down so all you saw was the top of his head and his poked out lower lip. “I can’t even…you know how fucked up that was, right? I don’t want to say you deserve to have your ass beat, but if you do that kind of crap when you’re older, it’s going to come back on you and you’re going to get fucked up by someone with way less tolerance than me.”
“I’m not done. I know you’re not happy, Ryder. Divorce fucking sucks. Everything changes. And to the rest of the world it’s like nothing changed and they can’t get why you’re so upset. That’s life, and sometimes life is fucked up. I’m not going to lie to you. Things aren’t always going to work out. One day you’re going to want something and you’re going to try everything you can to make it happen and it’s not going to be enough. But being an asshole isn’t a solution. That’s what you were today. And I want it to be the last time. Don’t fuck your dad around.”
“I’m so-so-sorry.” Ryder was crying now, big gulping sobs that reminded me how young he was.
“I know. So here’s the deal. I’m going to let you decide if you want to tell your dad what you did. You aren’t in trouble with school because it wasn’t on school grounds, so this one time I’m giving you a choice. You can tell your dad, or not, but know that if you do anything like this ever again, I will not be giving you another pass.”
“Okay then. Come on, let’s hug it out…” There was the creak and shush of people getting off the sofa, then Ryder’s voice muffled by the others’ arms and chests. No one had ever spoken to the kid like that. It was too soon to hope that it stuck, when the most I had come to expect was rolled eyes and a slammed bedroom door and absolutely no change in behaviour.
Ryder would never forgive me if he found out I’d been listening, so I opened the front door and closed it again to sound like I’d just stepped in. When I came around the corner Ryder leapt across the room, threw his arms around me and began to cry into my shirtfront. He hadn’t let me hug him in a month.
With nothing in the pantry but peanut butter and dried beans, I dialled up an extra-large pizza for supper, then sat back to watch as Jack put the boys to work. The dishwasher had been full of clean dishes all weekend, yet we’d smothered the countertops in our dirty cups and bowls rather than do anything about it. So much for equality. No wonder Patti had flipped. Jack lived alone and had to do it all himself, and from his clothes, his whole demeanor, I guessed his house would be immaculate. He wasn’t uptight, he was just put together, and he always smelled fantastic. If he was my personal assistant, maybe I could make him take me shopping. I was older than him, but I didn’t have to look this much older.
About the boys’ crimes Jack told me nothing. Not exactly nothing, because if I hadn’t overheard them I would have demanded to know what was making the boys act like guests from a more functional family. With the dishwasher humming in the kitchen we even dared to eat at the dining table, Jack having the good sense to throw a placemat under the hot pizza so we didn’t melt the varnish. Normal family dinner-ish, and Jack knew all about the boys’ day at school, Nelson’s A+ history test I hadn’t known was coming up, Ryder’s presentation on robots that was due at the end of the week. With another woman sitting at Patti’s end of the table it wouldn’t have felt so right. She would have been an obvious usurper. I couldn’t have invited a female assistant to stay for dinner without it being a scandal, but I hadn’t even asked Jack. He had simply not left. Maybe too personal an assistant, but maybe I didn’t care.
The pizza was gone, and I knew if there was more Nelson would still be eating. He only a little shorter than me with years yet to grow and seemed to have doubled in mass as puberty caught up with his athleticism. Ryder was still a loose-limbed boy, speedy but undisciplined, too cynical for someone so young, doomed to be an artist or writer, some open category that didn’t box him in. He would travel. Nelson would study. Jack would…be going home soon, the thought jarring as I watched him play with the pizza box, making it growl and bite Ryder’s hand. Giggling and rubbing his wrist, Ryder turned to me.
“So, when Jack picks me up tomorrow–”
“Wait, when did we decide this?” I said.
“He said he could. Jack, didn’t you say like the timing was perfect, it was a good time of day for you, like not a big deal? And he’s like your assistant, right, so you can make him do whatever you want.”
“It doesn’t work like that, okay? He’s not our servant.”
“I could, though,” Jack said. “Just for the week. Until you get this shitty case laid out. Sorry, I gotta watch the language.”
“It’s okay, shitty’s okay around our house when you mean it,” Ryder said. “Like just there, I had to say it, right, Dad? So he’d get the point about–”
“That presentation’s on Friday, isn’t it?” I said. Ryder clammed right up, then and he and Nelson left the table, taking their own plates and ours to the kitchen, much to my ongoing surprise. Maybe it wasn’t such a bad idea having Jack keep an eye on Ryder, if it was in the name of helping my work run smoothly. That had to count as assisting me personally.
Leaving behind the rarely heard sound of my boys unloading a dishwasher, we went out on the back porch through the dining room doors, installed at a huge cost on Patti’s insistence and used at most three times in the year that followed. At least the patio furniture was dry, and we sat without talking for a few minutes. Jack was comfortable around me, not always the case with younger men, who often mistake my calm for arrogance. He himself was calming without being a pushover, and he had obviously struck a chord in Ryder. Why was he single? It was really none of my business.
I was single. I was a single father. A single father with a suicidally depressed almost-ex-wife and still no idea what was going to happen to my kids, whether the job that kept them cared for was worth the time I gave it, why I was still acting like this was a minor event, a blip on the radar, like Patti had twisted her ankle instead of bailing on her family. At least it was dark and Jack couldn’t see me crying, but he wasn’t stupid.
“You ought to go on vacation after this case wraps,” he said. “Not to run away from your shit, just…you’re working too hard.”
“It’s a reason to get up every morning.”
“That’s not a good reason. Your kids are a reason. Yourself. What would you do tomorrow if you didn’t have to go into the firm? Like, twenty-four hours to spend however you want.”
“Just a day?”
“A week, then. What’s your fantasy destination?”
We hadn’t travelled in years, so long ago that Ryder probably didn’t even remember the outlandish trip to Alaska, taken at the demands of a then five-year-old Nelson and his insatiable obsession with whales. Patti couldn’t say no, not to her budding marine biologist, though by the end of the fortnight she looked twice as tired as when we’d left. Not a vacation like I should have taken her on, where she could have relaxed into her old self, the girl I had married. Where could I go that I wouldn’t wish I had brought her five years ago?
Crying again, but I hadn’t in weeks, months if you added them up, because I hadn’t had time. Hadn’t had the space, the lack of other people’s need, in order to feel my own. I was kidding if I thought a vacation would have stopped what happened. As if there was somewhere to run I stood up, but two steps brought me to the edge of the deck, the yard a black chasm of shadow, blurred by tears.
“Should I leave?” Jack said.
“No. I’m sorry–”
“Don’t say that. You’re supposed to feel fucked up. I remember when my parents split. She hung him out pretty bad. I had the room over the garage, and I could hear my dad go in there at night and cry. No one was on his side. Poor bastard didn’t have a clue what was going on. He was so sad he just signed everything over to my mom and disappeared from our lives for a while. But I couldn’t forget him, all alone in the fucking garage. Stupid macho shit.”
“What the fuck is wrong with people?”
“Hey, we’re people too. Everyone gets stupid when things are falling apart.” He got up to stand beside me, and we watched an early firefly blundering around at the back of the yard, the green dot bobbing like a tiny boat on the ocean at night. All alone on the sea of love, and the thought was stupid enough that it didn’t matter anymore. Everyone was alone, even when they were together, all of us stuck inside our own heads.
“I should go away,” I said, and scared by the monotone of my own voice I went on. “Just find a beach and lay on it for a week getting hammered and sunburnt. But who’d watch the kids?”
“Take ‘em with. Let ‘em go parasailing with the youth instructors while you hit the pool bar. They’ll be too high on life to notice if you keep nodding off at dinner.”
“Patti could never rest while they were around. And when they weren’t, she worried about them.”
“You’d have to tell her you were going. You probably have to get a letter to take her kids out of the country.”
“That’s how kidnapping happens. It’s usually one of the parents.”
“We’re going to Club Med, not Uzbekistan.”
“So you are going?”
“Why, you trying to tag along? Are you offering to babysit my kids?”
“I’ve had worse jobs. Babysitting your dumb ass, for example.”
“Maybe you should leave.”
“Yeah, I gotta start packing, wax my bikini line…”
“Yes sir, Mr Delange. Will there be anything else?”
“Are you really going to pick up the kids tomorrow?”
“Sure. Do they eat tacos?”
“Sorry, stupid question.”
Five nights of this. Four nights, because of Friday. Friday would be different. To start with, it was Friday, and despite every servile instinct in my workaholic soul I walked out of the office at four on the dot. As I stepped out into the sunshine I felt something in me take flight, leap up into the golden air and soar. The week had been a kind of test, and I didn’t care if I passed. I only had to try.
The kids had been impeccable all week, as if I would uninvite Jack if they misbehaved again, and so the threat never needed to be made. I was feeling vindicated against the therapists who had either implied or rudely stated that given his mother’s neurochemistry it was my moral obligation as Ryder’s parent to drug the bad behaviour out of him. He was simply too young to suppress his feelings the way adults got used to doing. Jack made him happy, in a way I’d never seen: attentive, polite, eager to earn praise, more respectful than I thought he knew how to be. Nelson too, in his quieter way, ever ready with a question that would lead us all to think and talk. I had always expressed my views cautiously around my kids, wanting them to form their own opinions. Now that they had, and with Jack to counter my authority, we could begin to talk like friends.
Friday, and so I’d brought home beer. Jack would leave his car at our house, get home by Uber or taxi whenever he felt like leaving, which meant we’d see him tomorrow when he came back for it. While the kids cleaned up from dinner he and I sat in the dark on the back deck, waiting for the fireflies to start their show. Cold beer, warm nights, friendship. Pain and recovery. Life went on, and sometimes it improved.
By now I knew as much about Jack as I did about any of my friends, more in some cases. Being with him was like fresh air, like a clear sky first thing in the morning, and every night as I watched him drive away it had felt like a bank of clouds had rolled back in. To see him the next day at work was a relief, a return to clarity.
He was shameless about his parents’ divorce and the years of fall-out, about first realizing how much each of them had contributed, and then having to forgive them both. I didn’t feel half of the hatred towards Patti as had seemed to flow between Jack’s parents. I didn’t hate her at all in fact, though I came to see that I was blaming her as if she had done it out of spite, broken our hearts on purpose, when it was really just a symptom of her depression. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to be married to me as much as that she didn’t think herself able to be married. That’s why it had never been my fault, why it had always been hers, why she had always said that I should have known we would fall apart, because she hadn’t believed she was capable of staying together. All these things I had learned in the dark these last four nights.
At a tapping at the patio door I turned. Nelson was beckoning me in. Ryder had broken a glass and got cut cleaning it up, and I spent a few squeamish minutes with him in the bathroom, suppressing my very strong aversion to the sight of blood. Thankfully neither boy had inherited this , and they insisted on finishing the chores, though Ryder kept his cut hand up on his other shoulder as though he wore a sling. After a minute of feeling superfluous I went back outside.
Jack wasn’t on the deck, and I went down to the lawn, the only place he could be. The shrubs around the base of the deck were swarming with fireflies, more than we’d seen so far, and I almost tripped over him, crouched down with his face inches from the stumbling lights.
“I didn’t see you,” I said as he straightened.
“It’s okay. I didn’t realize how dark it was down here.”
“Could you see the bugs, up close like that?”
“Sort of. The light makes it hard, right? They’re supposed to taste terrible.”
“According to who?”
“I mean to birds.”
He was drunk. I was too, a bit, though dealing with the kids always made me sober up in a hurry. But we were here now in the dark, chasing fireflies, and I could see the shape of his nose outlined by the light on the house next door, and his forehead and the hair that fell over it, and beneath it all his mouth. And I wondered what the world was like when love was a danger to your health. He had never said I’m gay but I knew his whole life now, his crushes, his shame, different and yet the same as my own immature agonies, the pain of creating your grown-up self by cutting away the excess. He finally felt me staring at him and turned, his face dappled bright and dark by the movement of leaves in the streetlights. “What, do you think I ought to test my theory?”
“Please don’t eat a bug.”
“I don’t think I could even catch one.”
“I probably ought to get going. Why are the kids still up?”
“Are you single?”
“Don’t go home.”
“Chris…don’t fuck with me.”
“I’m not. I mean it.”
“You’re fucking with me.”
“And I did, and I hope to prove it every day from now on, in every way I can.” The raunchy overtones struck me as another giggle rose from the crowd. I hadn’t given a speech at my first wedding, a hasty civil ceremony when Patti had imagined she was pregnant. But this was Jack’s first and hopefully only wedding, and he deserved every minute of it. He was on his feet now, coming to put his arms around me again, a feeling I had never thought of wanting, until I didn’t want to live without it.
“It sounds like a real story when you tell it,” he said only to me.
“It is a story.”
“It was never like that. We just hung out.”
“Until I knew I loved you.”
“Five nights was enough?”
“You’re easy to love.” Even easier to kiss, and I did, and everyone cheered. Next year we’d take the boys with us to Europe, but for our honeymoon, Jack and I were headed for the beach.